"Nature is for everybody"

Shannon Columb advocates for inclusiveness in the natural world

Jeanne Nagle and Jody Roland '80 | Profiles | March 2023

As has been the case with many students studying at the College of Natural Resources, Shannon Columb ’20 traces her love of the outdoors all the way back to childhood. Also like others at the college, she found that her interest in the environment blossomed and evolved during her time at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Her experiences as an undergrad were largely typical of students like her who seek a degree in the natural sciences.

For all those similarities, however, Columb says she rarely encountered someone like herself on campus. That’s because while she attended classes, worked at the Stevens Point Co-op and studied abroad in Europe, she did so accompanied by her guide dog, Frasier.

A native of Sturgeon Bay, Columb was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa when she was 2 years old. The condition manifests itself differently in each individual, although deterioration of vision over time is considered universal. Columb’s center vision has been reduced to about the size of a quarter, and night vision is troublesome. Floaters and double vision also can occur.

Challenges such as these have not deterred Columb in the slightest from attaining life goals such as attending college and pursuing a career in her chosen field.

“I’m a proponent of joy and find it through connecting with nature and my local community,” she says.

Several opportunities for growth awaited her at UWSP, where, in 2017, she transferred after a year at UW-Whitewater. In 2018, she met the challenge of spending five weeks in Poland and Germany as part of a university study abroad program, conducting fieldwork in locations that weren’t easily accessible to the visually impaired. With the help of Fraiser, as well as her classmates, Columb completed a four-hour trek up and down a mountainside to collect insect specimens at different elevations, and navigated a rain-drenched, off-trail hike through Bobia Góra National Park.

The following year, she spent six months as an environmental education/interpretation research fellow. Concurrently, she worked for the Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education as an equity and inclusion research assistant. Those experiences--combined with a conversation she had with a professor outside a cave in Slovakia during her study abroad sojourn--inspired her to refine her career trajectory. In addition to a bachelor’s degree in environmental education and interpretation, she obtained a certificate in environmental ethics, with a focus on the human dimensions of natural resource management.

The result has been an outlet for her passionate advocacy toward making the environment and outdoor recreation more inclusive, aimed at creating more opportunities for the differently abled. After graduation, while working a stint with WisCorps as a naturalist, Columb created The Blind, a website designed as a resource for those who are blind or visually impaired. An offshoot of the site is a consultancy business, wherein she advises groups and companies on ways to make the outdoors more accessible. Clients have included the Green Bay Botanical Children’s Garden and Trempaleau National Wildlife Refuge.

Recently, Columb began working as a community liaison at Independent Living Resources in La Crosse, where she currently resides. She is excited about this opportunity to educate, inspire and lend guidance to others as they navigate the world. Another big change will involve working with a new guide dog upon the imminent retirement of her faithful canine companion, Frasier. Undoubtedly, she will meet these challenges head-on, just as she has done so many times before. After all, Columb has made a point of embracing new experiences and learning innovative approaches to obstacles.

And, of course, she will continue counseling others on how to make the great outdoors a more inclusive place.

“A big misconception is that people with disabilities don’t go outdoors, fish or climb a mountain,” she says. “We do what we want to do. We just do it differently.

“Nature is for everybody.”


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