In honor of AmeriCorps Week, March 8-14, 2020, we asked a former SolarCorps Fellow about their year of service and how it has influenced their career today. Below is an interview with Wyatt Atkinson, who served as a SolarCorps Construction Fellow with GRID North Coast and now leads our Tribal Program as the Construction Manager.
How did you learn about GRID? What was your path before SolarCorps?
"My path to SolarCorps started when I first volunteered with GRID out on the Spokane Reservation. At the time, I was interning with a sustainable consulting company that was working with the Tribe. GRID came out and installed solar on four buildings, and I got to volunteer. I met Tim Willink [GRID’s Director of Tribal Programs] and a couple SolarCorps Fellows on site that week. Meeting them and seeing what it’s like on a solar installation site, and learning about the SolarCorps Program, piqued my interest. I thought the SolarCorps Program could be a great fit after I graduated from college. I applied for a SolarCorps position with the Tribal team, but when I learned that it was more on the programs side, I decided not to go for it. I was more interested in construction.
"After a month, Tim called me again and told me about a SolarCorps position out in California that served Tribal communities and was a hybrid position between construction and programs. I joined the North Coast team as their SolarCorps Construction Fellow and moved out to Willits, California. Honestly, I didn’t even know where that was. At first I thought I would learn as much as I could out in California and then bring it back to my home, the Fort Peck Nation in Northeastern Montana, but I ended up sticking around. This February marked my four-year anniversary with GRID!"
What would you say was a defining part of your SolarCorps year?
"One thing that sticks out for me is a huge sponsored workday we did near the end of my fellowship. We went to Bear River Rancheria with Northland Controls and installed 99 modules over the weekend across six or eight homes. I was still a SolarCorps Fellow, but I got to lead my own crew for the first time. At that point I felt prepared to stand on my own feet and do an installation from start to finish. That was huge, not only to have the technical knowledge but to lead this group of sponsored workday volunteers and be able to teach them the process."
"After my SolarCorps term I was promoted to Solar Installation Supervisor and had a lot more leadership responsibilities. This helped me sharpen my installation skills, since I was not only completing installs but also teaching other people how to do it. The following year I was promoted to Senior Solar Installation Supervisor. In that role, I was in charge of most of GRID North Coast’s installs as well as doing project management, designs, running permits, and standing in for inspections. I also had the opportunity to mentor two SolarCorps Fellows and train three interns. In April 2019, I joined the Tribal team to be a Solar Installation Supervisor and was promoted to Construction Manager last December.
"A recent full circle moment for me was returning to Spokane to lead a 600 kW solar installation across 31 buildings. It felt really good to come back and share what I knew with the community after being away for a couple years. I think it showed people what’s possible, when I used to be a volunteer who knew close to nothing about solar installation to now being the boss on site and knowing the entire song and dance. It’s such a rewarding feeling to know that I could push on these volunteers just a little bit to change their life. I know it’s changed my life."
What advice do you have for current SolarCorps?
"Just keep kicking. They’re going to throw you in the deep end; see what you can handle and learn as much as you can. You can get nothing out of your SolarCorps year or everything. It’s all about where your internal motivation is at."