Before she was a community professional, Jimena Cuenca worked as a park ranger for the National Park Service in Alaska.
She would talk with people who came to the visitor center about the park’s natural features, wildlife, plants, and trees. “The core of the job was building those relationships to inspire and nurture stewardship of our national parks in the United States. It was a lot of people-to-people interactions,” she says.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought some tensions into the workplace, she says. While the Park Service always had some rules they enforced, it seemed to Jimena that visitors’ emotions were heightened when they visited during the pandemic.
“To get to where I was, they would have had to pass airports and other COVID protocols. They were already navigating so many rules. Then they arrived here expecting this natural recreation experience but faced more rules. I started thinking about how to create a space that has a sense of empathy and compassion. I really had to tap into those in me to reduce misunderstandings,” she says.
These experiences pushed Jimena to reflect on what type of career would allow her to have more of an impact with people, she says. “I really enjoyed the people-to-people connection, but they’d be there for 30 minutes or an hour, and then I'd never see them again. That's when the first inklings of changing my career began. I was looking for a space where those relationships would last longer.”
Jimena worked full time at the National Park Service, but the role was seasonal when the parks were open to the public. She also worked part time as a contractor for the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE), a professional association that advances environmental education and connects educators and professionals across the field.
While Jimena was planning an online event for the NAAEE, her supervisor advised her to rethink her approach and focus more on the event’s purpose than format. Jimena began by reading The Art of Gathering. “I remember diving into the book and then looking for podcasts and Googling how people interact with each other,” she says. “That led me to The Community Club’s Forum, where people were sharing blog posts about community. That's where I learned about C School.”
It was the end of the season for the national parks, and Jimena’s supervisor at the NAAEE encouraged her to think about her passions — one of which was community management.
“I was going through some changes in my life, and that inspired me to say, ‘I’m going to take the next step and see what happens when I change my career’. And I saw the C School cohort was coming up and thought I'll apply and see what happens.”
Jimena had already applied for a community role that didn’t work out. She says she learned so much through the interviews for that role that she applied to C School thinking that even if she didn’t get in, she’d learn something through the interview process again.
Jimena was accepted into C School’s Community Foundations course that ran for 12 weeks from November 2021 to February 2022.
The Community Foundations course is designed for career changers who want to pivot into the community industry from other professions. It’s a cohort-based course, with students learning the foundations of community management, creating resumes, preparing for interviews, and searching for their first community role together.
Jimena’s cohort had 12 students, and she says her experience of learning with other students was empowering. “C School does a really wonderful job of facilitating peer-to-peer learning. I felt a little intimidated sharing in class because I was still very new to community management. But the instances when I did share, my peers were so supportive. Nobody ever put anyone down, and everyone recognized that we were all starting from a different place.
“Before the course, I didn’t feel like I had anything of value to share in terms of community management. But my peers supported me and shared that they learned things from me, too. That motivated me to want to learn more and share more.”
Students learn from community experts — C School instructors and guest speakers — through classroom discussions, presentations, and exercises. One of Jimena’s favorite learning experiences, early on during the course, was a guest lecture with Shana Sumers, Senior Manager, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging Communities at HubSpot. “It highlighted, from the start, that diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging are important and valuable in what we do and what we practice. It also expanded my thinking about what diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging can look like in digital spaces,” says Jimena.
Before enrolling in C School, Jimena says she was learning about community management in piecemeal. Her expectations coming in were of structured learning that would build the foundation of community management. Her experiences, she says, went beyond her expectations.
“It was a formal introduction not only to what community is as a profession and a career, but also as a framework and a practice. I came away learning that it's so interdisciplinary. The people we met were coming from so many backgrounds. C School showed me how broad and expansive community management can be, but also what it is at the core is supporting whoever makes up the community,” says Jimena.
“It developed in me a mindset of growth. We got to learn from so many people and create these spaces where ideas can flow. The way I approach my work is so different from what it would have been had I not gone through C School.”
Jimena’s part-time role as a Program Associate with the NAAEE saw her working primarily in social media communications, as well as editing and contributing content to eePRO, the NAAEE’s online community. There was no dedicated Community team at the NAAEE, and members from the communications and web support teams helped with community efforts.
Jimena wanted to change that.
For her final project in the course, she reimagined what eePRO could look like. “Doing that project and the exercises throughout the course pushed me to think about what exactly our community is, and what it could be if there was more dedicated support and resources to it.”
She took the feedback she received on the project from Community Educator Cait Levin and from her peers and asked her supervisor if she could share her community pitch.
“I shared what I learned in discovery, what I thought about our community and where it fits in our larger organizational ecosystem, and what opportunities there might be and how we might be able to further support our eePRO community members,” she says.
Jimena and her supervisor began having conversations about her future and how she saw her role growing. In February 2022, Jimena’s career in community formally began with her full-time role as Digital Community Coordinator at the NAAEE.
It’s been just a few months since she moved into her new role, and Jimena says she can already see changes in the community.
“I’m definitely seeing a trend more towards engagement. Before, it was very much focused on content, which is a critical part of our community strategy. But now, it's trending more towards people looking for opportunities to collaborate and discuss ideas. Our community has different groups, each with a different focus, and I'm noticing, especially within our moderators, this goal for moving out of silos and connecting more with each other and seeing how ideas and topics might overlap.”
Although her cohort is over, Jimena stays connected to her fellow students in The Community Club’s Slack group. As for C School itself — it never really left her, she says.
“Even now, when I feel overwhelmed or a bit lost in my day-to-day work, I find myself going back to the documents, looking at the fundamentals or the weeks about engagement, moderation, and outcomes. I love that it's still a resource for me to use. I feel like I'm taking C School along with me on my professional journey.
“It especially helps when I'm feeling overwhelmed. I can always return to those fundamentals and say, ‘Okay, this is my plan, this is my next step’. And I absolutely credit C School for preparing me for that and equipping me with the tools to manage the day-to-day of my career now.”