Connecting Students With Opportunities & The Outdoors

Front porches welcome and connect – indoors to outdoors, neighbor to neighbor, individuals to communities. They can be the place where futures are imagined and planned, and burdens made lighter by sharing.

That may be why Tom Isenhart, associate professor of natural resource ecology and management, says John Burnett is the “front porch of our department.”

“A front porch is the first place that you stop at a home. But it’s also the place where people are greeted, where they know they are welcome and where relationships are made. That truly is John,” says Isenhart.

Burnett leads recruiting, orientation and learning communities for the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management (NREM). He teaches three introductory courses, advises 350 undergraduate students, supervises peer mentors and student clerical staff and serves on several department and university committees. When students first consider natural resource majors Burnett is the first person they see.

“John makes an impact on you right away. At orientation he already knew everyone’s name. It really made me feel welcome,” says Carter Oliver, a senior in animal ecology and forestry from Woodbine, Iowa. “And the more years you spend with him, the more connected you get and the more he understands you.”

Burnett listens to his students. He learns their interests and dreams and then shows them careers and professional development and community service opportunities matching their interests. He received the college’s 2014 Outstanding Adviser Award and is also the recipient of the 2014 Iowa State University Award for Academic Advising Impact.

“I really enjoy discussing possibilities with them. There are jobs and careers out there they don’t even know exist yet. Our job is to introduce them to those things so they can decide whether or not they want to pursue them. When students get excited about that kind of thing, it’s just wonderful to see,” Burnett says.

Career opportunities for NREM students can include wildlife biologist, fisheries biologist, natural resources interpretation, conservation law enforcement, pre-veterinary and wildlife care. To give students a closer look at these professions and “to get them out there having fun and caring about the work,” Burnett leads periodic weekend trips. These have included the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo to get a behind-the-scene tour by a zookeeper, the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City to observe the work of naturalists and a trip to Aldo Leopold’s restored prairie and woods in Wisconsin to learn about land stewardship and the Father of Wildlife Management, Leopold himself.

Since joining the NREM staff in 1997, Burnett has helped Oliver and thousands of others explore careers and tailor their Iowa State experience to their professional and personal aspirations.

John Yates (’13 animal ecology) from Sioux City, Iowa, recalls numerous visits to Burnett’s office and how Burnett helped him explore career interests as they developed.

“I led a study group for organic chemistry and realized I really enjoyed helping others learn,” Yates says. “John suggested I look into supplemental instruction and later he introduced me to the Masters in Teaching (MAT) program in the College of Education. I know without him and his guidance, my entire path would have taken a much different route. I’m very happy with the way I’ve decided to go.” Yates enrolled in the MAT program in May.

“Every time I had a question, all I had to do was pop my head in John’s office and as long as he was not taking care of somebody else, he was always very welcoming. If I had a question about school, that was great. But if I just wanted to pop in and say ‘hello’ he was just as happy with that as well,” adds Yates.

Isenhart says many NREM students have told him they “would not have made it through, if it hadn’t been for John’s efforts.”  Burnett has helped students with problem solving in times of adversity, such as keeping up with course requirements after the death of a loved one. And he’s been there for them in times of celebration, such as attending graduation celebrations and a U.S. citizenship ceremony.

“It’s hard to understate how much students respect and appreciate John as an adviser. They know they are his top priority and he has their interests at heart,” says Isenhart.

Adriana Negron came to Iowa State from Puerto Rico in 2010. She will graduate in December in animal ecology, having completed a pre-vet, wildlife care option. She is a peer mentor for NREM transitional and transfer students and says Burnett helps with things that may seem small to others, but can be very stressful to students.

“Getting into a class you need and fixing your schedule, learning how not to procrastinate and how to manage our schedule, and just breathing and relaxing – all those things John helps us through with patience and good humor,” she says.

Bobbi Provost, an animal ecology junior from a suburb of Chicago, agrees. “John is just amazing. Every semester he makes sure I know what I need to graduate. I’ll go in there panicked and I’ll walk out much more calm and knowing what’s going on.”

Negron says Burnett “has been that solid rock for me, that person I can count on when I’m having a difficult time. One winter I wanted to transfer to Florida where it was warm, and he said, ‘Think about it.’”

Burnett says students “need to know someone is keeping them accountable. And I hope they know that someone cares about them.”

They do.

“When I talk to my parents, I say, ‘I have a grandpa here. It’s all okay.’ He worries like a grandfather will,” says Negron. “When you’re doing something bad, he’ll tell you. But he is the first person in that row of persons cheering for you at the end of the day, backing you up every second of the trip.”