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Meet Jessa Goldner – Assistant Director of Student Experiences, Explorer Extraordinaire

Jessa grew up in rural Pennsylvania outside of Pittsburgh where much of her childhood was spent being outside, camping and playing in the stream by her house. These adventures would lay the groundwork for the exploration she would do throughout her life.

She moved to Columbus after deciding to attend The Ohio State University. Studying anthropological sciences was her choice as she was very interested in understanding why people do what they do. Her exploration began, like many others of her generation, with an interest in forensic anthropology but she quickly realized she was much more interested in the cultural aspects of anthropology rather than the biological ones. Her time at university led to a greater understanding of her major and the trajectory that she would have to travel if she were to become a practicing anthropologist. Before investing in further education, she wanted to be sure of what she wanted to do.

Perusing programs like Peace Corps, she discovered AmeriCorps. AmeriCorps members serve directly with nonprofit organizations in the United States to tackle our nation’s most pressing challenges through direct and indirect service. Soon after getting accepted into AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps) her mother passed away after a long fight with brain cancer. Certain that her mother would want her to follow her plan to the Southwest, Jessa moved to Denver seeking open spaces, higher elevation, and healing connections. 


Earning $13 per day, she was totally immersed in direct service for others, serving four locations/regions on a team of 18-24 year olds. Though the AmeriCorps NCCC Southwest base camp was Denver, Colorado, her team got sent out in service to Kansas City, Missouri, Taos, New Mexico and Vail, Colorado. Getting the opportunity to live and work alongside members of these communities gave Jessa life again. She was having new experiences and seeing the amazing parts of humanity that were working to elevate the goodness of their community. Listening to locals and their needs, Jessa was able to utilize the fundamentals of her degree in the form of being culturally competent while having these interactions with people from places unlike Western PA.   

In Vail, Jessa and her team worked alongside InteGREAT, a coalition of organizations dedicated to providing support for basic needs of families living in the valley year round. The programs focused on education, food insecurity, housing, and health and wellness. Here Jessa found outdoor education, and realized that she could have a career in this pathway that wasn't just sporadic seasonal work. 

In order to explore outdoor education, she took another AmeriCorps position where she served as Community Engagement Coordinator for The Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont (GSMIT) as a VISTA member. Working in this temperate rainforest for two years, she worked to get local students access to hands-on STEM programs located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and at their own schoolyards. Her love for this work was being fueled by the relationships and knowledge she was gaining from working with local educators and park professionals. At the end of her contract, she returned to Columbus with a better understanding of the work she was passionate about bringing to Central Ohio.

All of her searching led her to PAST, who brought her onboard to help revamp the Garbology Program and conduct environmental programming for KIPP Columbus. PAST allowed Jessa to explore both of her passions; anthropology and environmental education. She began building a Green Educator: Ohio program and starting creating connections in Ohio. “Everything I have done to date, has led me to PAST,” Jessa shares. “I understand who I am better and what I want to do because of my past experiences.” She explains that the uncertainty she once felt about where she belonged in the professional world is gone. She says, “My role at PAST is helping me accomplish my goals of creating a coalition, much like what I saw with InteGREAT in Vail, that could bring the state together for a sustainable future.”

The Green Educator: Ohio program is funded by American Honda Motor Company and Martha Holden Jennings Foundation with the first year ending in April 2024. It includes middle and elementary schools in Central and Northwest Ohio. This program allows PAST to lead schools towards EcoSchool Certification, affiliated with the National Wildlife Federation, where students earn action cards (badges) that will bring their school towards sustainability. There are many options for projects focusing on the following categories – bio-diversity, water quality, health and well-being, sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and production, climate action, and becoming citizen scientists.

Jessa’s hopes, goals and aspirations are building coalitions with a foundational group of like-minded individuals to push the state of Ohio to be more sustainable. She wants to build this group similar to what she saw exemplified in Vail where the organizations and individuals come together for the common goal of well-being. “I want to teach students to love and appreciate their community as they will be its future stewards, " she explains. “We need to be more positive about climate action and not teach fear-based curriculum about the future. If students can see themselves in nature then they are going to want to figure out ways to protect it.”

As Jessa explains her metatitle she says, “I chose Explorer Extraordinaire because I love exploring and seeing all of the new things this world has to offer. Explore mysteries and be on the lookout for something that might interest you OR be a clue to something you never knew existed. This world is amazing!”


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