You’re three years old and your grandfather asks you what you want to be when you grow up. Your toddler’s mind considers all the things around you that you love. The grass in your small, urban backyard, the flowers that you water with the metal watering can, the pretend farm animals you make trot around in the dirt. Naturally, you answer that when you grow up you want to be a farmer.
Fast forward to your eighth-grade year of school. You now live in a suburban town where you’ve been able to take horseback riding lessons and bike all around the town to wonderful wild places – wide open fields, babbling brooks, and acres of wooded forests. One day there is a symposium for eight grade students and independent schools come to recruit students to become freshmen at their institution. Many of the private schools are affluent college preparatory schools, which you know your family can’t afford. You’ve had to volunteer to muck stalls at the barn on the weekends in exchange for riding lessons to help supplement what your parents can contribute to your lessons. Toward the end of the symposium, your ears perk up as a unique school gives a presentation that captivates your attention. The presenter describes a local school that focuses on agriculture, equine sciences, environmental studies, set on a large campus with plenty of space to explore! You’re thrilled that a school like this exists, but doubt your ability to attend, until the presenter explains that it’s a vocational school open to the public within a twenty-mile radius and all are welcome to apply and there is no tuition. That’s right, it’s completely free!
You board the bus home from school thinking of ways to convince your parents to let you attend this school rather than your town’s high school. You come up with a pretty compelling argument, stating that the school’s academics are sound and the additional education you’ll get in topics that you’re passionate about makes this the perfect place for you. You discuss it with your parents and to your delight, they say they’ll do some more research to entertain the idea. The beginner of the summer break approaches and they decide to allow you to apply. You eagerly await a response for several weeks and check the mailbox daily. One day, a letter arrives for you, and with your nerves awry, you slowly open the envelope and unfold the parchment paper. It’s an official acceptance letter welcoming you to your new high school!
Freshman year comes and goes, you study all areas of concentration during this time frame to equip you to choose the major best suited for your interests. You thought you’d be drawn to the Equine Sciences program, since the farming-related majors such as animal husbandry and crop production, had subsided in recent decades, and were surprised to find how much you gravitated toward natural resources which focused on sustainable forestry and horticulture practices. For sophomore year, you chose Plant Science, which included floriculture, horticulture and natural resources and by junior year you decided your remaining two years would be spent in the Natural Resources major focusing on sustainable forestry and arboriculture. You take your studies seriously, get involved with student government and the Future Farmers of America club. As you approach graduation and begin to look at colleges, you are reminded of your late grandfather’s belief in you even as others doubted your future career path.
You apply and are accepted to the UMass Amherst School of Forestry program. You tour the school and love the campus, but have doubts due to the location and cost. Life seems to have other plans for you. You decide on a more affordable option, community college studying horticulture which will broaden your experience in a similar field. You work and continue your courses and finally land a few job interviews. You quickly discover that being an uncommon gender in a field predominantly composed of another gender has its own unique challenges. Feeling discouraged, you take a job in retail to make ends meet while completing school. You end up internalizing the words of the adults in your life that feel your career choice will not provide you with sustainable long term income, and switch your major several times as you attend a few different community colleges since you’ve also moved a couple of times.
You end up spending the better part of a decade on and off working for a large corporate retail chain. You don’t particularly like it, but are successful and find a way to make it as meaningful as possible and even climb the ladder into a management position. You get to a point where the work isn’t fulfilling and decide to get back to community college and work towards that degree you still haven’t obtained. There is a local college that offers a Liberal Arts Associate’s with a concentration in Environmental Science, it’s the perfect fit. You take several fascinating courses, a biology class, a sustainable food and agriculture course, and the NH Natural Resources Stewardship course. This course is once per week on Fridays held at the NH Fish & Game headquarters in Concord, for the entire fall semester. Each class has a different focus all centered around various environmental topics like watersheds, permaculture principles, environmental law, etc. Then, there is a class that ultimately is life-changing, although you don’t realize it until later. The day is focused on hunting, fishing, and trapping. The teacher discusses the history, the current practices, and speaks to the ethics of using these practices to aid in wildlife conservation and management as well as to contribute to natural, sustainably sourced food. You’re intrigued by the North American Model of Conservation, and realized you had never understood what it was or how it impacts Americans as public landowners, regardless of if they hunt or fish or simply enjoy hiking or birding or sitting outdoors.
Throughout the semester-long course you start to realize some fundamental truths about yourself and your life. You understand that for as long as you can remember nature has been a part of your life. From playing in your city backyard and staying up past bedtime to lean out your bedroom window to watch the moon rising behind the one tree within view amongst all the concrete and buildings, to visiting family in rural Vermont, to your high school years spent mostly outside, you realize nature is the one constant in your life. You realize that the past several years have been spent doing things that you aren’t fully invested in, whether the varying majors you tried during college to the retail gig you’re working. No matter how hard or successfully you try to cultivate meaning from these things, they just won’t work for you going forward. You have to make a change. Lastly, you start to learn from this class that YOU are a part of nature. You are it, and it is you, and you’re just a piece of the interconnected web of being. This last realization gives you some peace and comfort that all of the lived experience you have gained was not in vain and was in fact building to this moment.
You think back to a different semester in college when you were twenty-two and completed the Wilderness Immersion and Leadership Development (W.I.L.D.) program. You got the amazing opportunity to experience an educational wilderness trip in the backcountry of California. It was the most connected to the land you had ever felt up to that point in your life and you looked forward to that semester for so long. Four days into the trip and your feet were so badly blistered from ill-fitting boots that you had to make arrangements to leave early and since you hated (and still do hate) to fly, you took a train from LA to Boston. That experience, while an amazing adventure, left you feeling empty and jaded that your plan to do something related to the outdoors just continually kept failing.
All of a sudden, you’re pulled back to your current moment of learning, where you’ve begun to realize that the rest of that semester introduced you to adventure and experiential learning, and you remember that you completed a training to become a contract staff member at Project Adventure during that W.I.L.D. semester. You have a thought, that perhaps you could reach out and see if you could pick it back up part time, ofcourse, so that you could continue to make ends meet with your retail work. You end up doing contract work for Project Adventure and several other local challenge courses for the next couple of years, all while reluctantly continuing to climb the corporate ladder. A climb that brought many other wonderful joys into your life. Because of your career at this retailer, you met your spouse who also worked for the company, you became acquainted with many local businesses where you were able to network, found a place that you adopted one of your dogs from, and ultimately built an amazing work community. You gained a plethora of transferable professional skills and life lessons over the course of your time spent there. Despite your gratitude for all of this, you feel ready to move on for good. You know you need to get a degree in order to get a job in a field related to natural resources or conservation. You even consider joining the National Guard which would allow you to get your education and provide relevant experience for becoming an environmental law enforcement officer.
Out of the blue, you get an email from Project Adventure stating that there is a full-time position open, and while it’s an office job, you would have a flexible schedule and occasionally still get to work outside on the challenge course. You knew you had to take the chance, especially to get your foot in the door! So you took the position and left your retail work behind!
During your time at PA, you’ve grown as a professional and as an individual. It feels great to work for a company you believe in, one that values its employees as whole, authentic people, and one that fosters a deep sense of community among colleagues. You get some outdoor time, working on the challenge course and taking workday breaks to walk the trails on the gorgeous, sprawling property – a perk retail could never have afforded you. As time goes on, you realize that adventure-based learning is the theory that all humans inherently learn through first hand, lived experience. It is then that you have yet another realization, that this has been clear through your life. From your time at Essex Aggie in high school discovering new skills in a hands-on learning environment to all of the years in retail that you continually gleaned lessons from every challenge and triumph.
You’ve simultaneously taken up the practices of hunting, fishing, foraging, and gardening for food. You’re becoming increasingly connected to the land and the wildlife on the public lands near your new home. You even moved up to the mountains for these opportunities, as they’re more abundant in rural areas. Your 180-mile round trip commute to work has become a non-issue now that you’re working remotely due to a global pandemic. A small silver lining in all of the current chaos, perhaps? It is during your remote work that you begin to consider looking into online learning opportunities. You want to look for nature or environmentally related courses, but figure those would not be offered in a virtual setting. One day, you come across an ad for Unity College’s online distance education program, and they have a Wildlife Conservation major! After more research you decide to apply and are accepted, financial aid works out, and here you are once again working on a degree.
This time, you know it is different. You’re in such a great place with your life’s path, you no longer feel regret or resentment from all of the plans that didn’t quite work out. In fact, although you don’t believe in “things happening for a reason” you can’t help but laugh at the irony that it feels like each and every decision, each so-called failed plan, has led you to this very moment. You’re once again reminded of the train trip across the country and that while unexpected and unplanned, turned into such a profound metaphor for your life’s journey. So, you dive in headfirst to volunteer work that adds to your interest in conservation and the environment to gain more experience while you take online courses.
Feeling beautifully overwhelmed with gratitude, you reflect upon the reasons that you’ve chosen this path, especially since it has not been an easy one and assuredly holds more challenges ahead (most jobs in this field pay less than you currently make in your present full-time job). You find your interest lies in the principle that humans are not the only species with value and in fact, all species, plant and animal, have a right to this precious thing we call life. You love the balance in nature, the idea that death gives new life in the form of food, whether animal protein or the decomposing dead tree that falls in the forest to nurture the solid and all the small insects that feed on it. You find it fascinating that humans see themselves as separate rather than a part of nature. You know that humans will continue to shape and alter the planet, as do all species, but that since capable of reason, people need to become aware of the most sustainable way to continue with modern life. You want your life’s work to be to learn as much as you can about your local ecology and teach and encourage others to do the same. You want to make a difference in conservation efforts within your state and region, and especially advocate conservation through ethical consumption practices such as hunting, trapping, fishing, and foraging. You feel confident that your interpersonal, facilitation, and management skills gained over your time in retail and in adventure/experiential education will enable you to be able to do this work. You’ve learned over the past decade that this passion for nature and conservation is a deep piece of your identity, and despite how little or much money you’ll make doing it, it is the only thing you want to devote your time to going forward in your career. You know the challenges facing our planet in regard to climate change and sustainable food, and you know that ethical consumptive conservation is a large part of the solution. You can picture yourself graduating with your degree and volunteer experience and heading into a job as a wildlife ecologist or Fish & Wildlife Service employee. You know you’ll help others find their own value of nature and conservation while actively contributing to stopping biodiversity and habitat loss across the country. You want to help others see responsible human consumption as part of nature, that humans are best able to protect the plant and all of its various life forms but utilizing renewable resources in a manner that ensures long term benefits to people, wildlife, and the earth. You especially want to show that wildlife conservation and hunting are not oxymorons, but can support each other in a beautiful way.
You take a deep breath in and hold it for a moment. It is a pause to honor all the places, both literally and figuratively, that you’ve been. It’s a pause to appreciate this present moment where you feel as if the intersection of all your experience and education is at a crossroads. As you let out your breath, you envision your future vocation within the field of wildlife conservation. You feel hopeful and excited. You’re ready to face the uncertainty of this unknown time by drawing on your past, as your journey has been extremely non-linear, it has led you right to where you want to be – to where you belong.