Background/Question/Methods Many undergraduate students are drawn to ecology-related majors because they have a strong interest in pursuing applied careers, such as conservation and restoration, in order to professionally contribute to protecting and improving ecological health and integrity. Yet so often the message that students get during their early college years is that they need to first master the foundations of their chosen discipline before they can meaningfully engage in the field. While some lucky undergraduates are able to land summer field/lab assistant jobs in ecology research labs, these types of experiences are more commonly available to juniors or seniors enrolled in research-oriented universities. First- and second-year students, and especially community college students, are often excluded from these kinds of positions. This is a missed opportunity to involve early college students, and students from less economically privileged backgrounds, in meaningful, real-world ecological experiences that can help them maintain their enthusiasm and motivation to progress toward completing an ecology/biology/environmental degree even as they work through required introductory STEM courses. Integrating authentic ecological experiences for early college students into curricular and co-curricular programs not only helps to retain students in ecology-related majors, it also provides students with training in both technical and soft skills, aligns with Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education principles, and opens up opportunities to serve local communities through place-based ecological research and stewardship activities. Results/Conclusions Ecology faculty at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey have established a campus-based Center for Environmental Studies (CES) to facilitate student involvement in local ecological research and stewardship activities. Utilizing funding from grants, private donors, and local government contracts, CES hires paid student interns to assist faculty in a range of projects related to forest ecology, coastal conservation, wildlife monitoring, rare plant conservation, water quality, and campus sustainability. Over the past five years approximately 20 student interns per year have been engaged in field measurements, stream sample collection and processing, deer surveys, invasive species removal, native revegetation, organic gardening, and much more. Each year several students have given presentations to municipal groups and non-profit organizations and presented posters at regional conferences. These experiences prepare community college students for transfer to four-year institutions and the environmental workforce beyond what is possible in a traditional classroom setting. These programs provide a model for student engagement in real-world ecological research and stewardship that can be applied at other institutions of higher education.