After 27 years in the social work department, Donna McIntosh has graded her "final" final exams, which now gives her free time to study for her own exams.
A master's level course in environmental toxicology is every bit as hard as it sounds. The class demands precise calculations of hazard quotients, which is the ratio of the potential exposure to a substance and the level at which no adverse effects are expected. McIntosh would stay up until 3:00 in the morning finishing her homework before teaching the next day. The sleepless hours paid off. She aced the course to preserve a 4.0 in her master's program. Now in her 60s, McIntosh isn't just taking graduate level environmental policy and management courses for fun, though she does love being a student. The education is ammunition. McIntosh is retiring from Siena to begin her next career... saving the St. Lawrence River.
McIntosh and her husband, Allan, both grew up in the Thousand Islands, a constellation of 1,864 islands at the head of the St. Lawrence River straddling the Canada-U.S. border. In 2014, Donna and Allan bought a summer cottage on Wellesley Island; now it will be their year-round home. Most people head south in retirement, McIntosh is going very north. Most people look forward to relaxing in their "golden years," McIntosh is eager to put her new degree to work.
"My younger sister asked me recently, 'Why not just step back, take a break?' I told her, 'You're asking me not to be alive.'"
McIntosh's father, who made a living as an electrician for an upstate New York mining company, became permanently disabled before his 40th birthday. Talc dust from the mines infiltrated his lungs, and the same dust killed his father when he was just 48. McIntosh was a teenager when her dad was sick and then laid off. It fueled her passion for social and environmental justice, which initially led her to social work. Perhaps it was fate that led her to Allan, who worked in environmental enforcement.
"Neither one of us wants to sit on the sideline quietly. We care too much about momma Earth. I tell my students that silence means you agree. I found my voice when I was 25. It's a learning curve to find your voice, but when you do, you've got to use it."
McIntosh intends to use her voice, and her degree, to protect the river that frames their home. She's long had the passion to fight, but she learned long ago that to play with the "big boys in the environmental field," she would need to know what she's talking about. She'll graduate with her degree in environmental policy and management from American Public University in August and then plans to take a watershed and management course. After that, whatever the river needs (in 2015, Montreal dumped more than two billion gallons of untreated sewage into the St. Lawrence). Their first action may be to petition her town to ban pesticide use along the waterfront. McIntosh has an amazing view, and she'll be the one to preserve it.
"I didn't like being a student as an undergrad. It felt like a necessary evil to get to where I wanted to go. Now I love being a student. Siena gave me this opportunity. The College has paid for all of it. What a gift. What a gift. I don't take that for granted, not for a minute."
Donna McIntosh, M.S.W., professor of social work
(Donna and Allan rescued Tula, top, a Native American Indian Dog. Tula passed away in March of 2021. They've named their cottage after Tula, and they also sponsor a goat at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary who goes by Tula.)