Profile of TLC volunteer Melinda Pandiangan
“Teaching is both an art and a science,” says Oak Cliff resident, environmental educator, and outdoor enthusiast Melinda Pandiangan. A teacher can know their content forwards and backwards, but it doesn’t matter if they aren’t willing to evolve—even in the subjects that inspire the most passion.
Pandiangan’s passion is palpable. She grew up in “the Dallas ISD of Maryland,” as she calls it and witnessed the disparities in a big, under-resourced district from the student’s perspective. Eager to work toward long-term change in public education, Pandiangan’s dream was to begin in the classroom but move into administration with the goal of focusing on teacher retention. She had no idea where her career would take her.
“I fell in love with teaching environmental science and biology,” she says. Suddenly her desire for broad sweeping changes acquired a laser focus on the classroom itself.
Pandiangan remembers how environmental science was once considered the easy elective. “It’s now a standard subject,” she says, “and is literally the most relevant subject to our daily lives.” Part of raising well-rounded, environmentally educated citizens is instilling an element of civic pride, in “building the spirit of lifelong volunteerism” that encourages advocacy. Before discovering TLC workdays at Oak Cliff Nature Preserve, Pandiangan had been forced to go further afield for service learning opportunities. “I was sending my students to North Dallas,” she says, when what she really wanted were opportunities closer to home. Then she connected with TLC’s North Texas Program Director Amber Arseneaux.
Students were able to spend a morning at OCNP working on invasive species removal, trail maintenance, and trash pick-up, but more importantly, they got to explore. “Amber took them on a guided hike down the Yellow Trail,” says Pandiangan. “She showed them the wild beauty of the place.” Many of the students—who live within walking distance of the preserve—had never even been inside. “They knew it as that random bike trail or that place by the factory.” Pandiangan remarks that if you grow up hiking and camping, you’ll naturally make your way to these kinds of wild places within cities, but her students had yet to think of OCNP as theirs.
Pandiangan is intentional about bringing environmental advocates of color into the classroom. She regularly invites urban farmers and those who work in food rescue to speak to students about advocating for a healthy, city environment; but she says you often have to guide students to these natural spaces before it all clicks into place. “How do you encourage students to fall in love with the outdoors?” You need to think local, she says, and you need to help students be ambassadors for their own neighborhoods. The workdays with TLC opened up that possibility of ownership.
“They had a sense of ownership because this was their backyard. They kept asking, ‘When are we going back?’”
While the hard labor of trail work and invasive species removal was certainly not for everyone, some of the class stayed well past noon, the proposed stop time, to continue working. One pair of students—a brother and sister who live across the street from OCNP—outworked their peers with an enthusiasm Pandiangan had yet to see. Prior to the workday, they had been unengaged in the classroom, but, after visiting OCNP, they had a deeper connection to Pandiangan and a reason to follow up. “They had a sense of ownership because this was their backyard,” she says. “They kept asking, ‘When are we going back?’”
On their second work day, Pandiangan noticed students heading down to the creek to clear up extra litter—without any prompting and she began to create an equipment list in her mind. They needed waders, and they needed long-term equipment for water and soil testing. “OCNP is a living laboratory,” she says. “Four out of every six units relate to it.” And if students feel this is their space, their eagerness to learn from the land will be that much more powerful. “My goal is that every student knows OCNP is a preserve they can use as well,” says Pandiangan. “You just have to walk it once or twice before you’re a lifelong volunteer.”
Oak Cliff is not only where Pandiangan teaches—it’s also her community. She lives within ten minutes of the preserve and walks it regularly. “It’s one of the reasons why I want to stay in this area,” she says. “Where else in Dallas can I experience this wildness?” The preserve has an immersive quality that more manicured spaces lack; plus, it welcomes visitors of all ages. “The trails are soft,” says Pandiangan, perfect for those suffering from joint pain or health issues that may prevent them from accessing other outdoor spaces in the Dallas area.
“There are small amounts of weird joy. I want everyone to experience OCNP, to experience the peace.”
There is an emotional connection to Pandiangan’s upbringing that is unmistakable at OCNP. The Yellow Trail reminds her of a deciduous forest in the northeastern United States. “I’ve really relied on it in these times,” she says. “Especially now.” Pandiangan is truly an optimist, an innovator. While this is a strange time to be teaching, she says, it is also a golden opportunity to explore new avenues in online learning, and to make hopeful and ambitious plans for the future. “There are small amounts of weird joy,” she says, and much of this joy is to be found outdoors. “I want everyone to experience OCNP, to experience the peace.”
OCNP is for lifelong learners, lifelong volunteers, and lifelong seekers of natural beauty, and Pandiangan wants her students to feel that this is a place they can go, not only for knowledge but also for respite. For peace. “Nature will always be there for them,” she says. “Nature will continue for them.”