The Importance of Starting with Volunteer Hours
One of my first jobs right out of college was as a field naturalist—an environmental educator, really, primarily with elementary and middle school students from school groups that came for residential programs of up to a week.
During their stay, we taught a wide range of classes, primarily in three-hour blocks, as well as evening programs. Plenty of the courses we taught were popular, of course, including Pioneer Life (which we taught replete with threshing grain and meals cooked on a wood stove), Pond Life, Fungi, and a range of adventure classes, too, including Orienteering, Rock Climbing, Archery, and three different High Ropes courses.
Few of our programs or courses were more popular than the birds of prey, however: the Raptor evening program was something students would look forward to all week, having heard how cool it was from brothers and sisters who had come in the previous years.
The program had four different raptors: a kestrel, a peregrine falcon, an owl (a barred owl, I think, but memory being what it is, I can’t be sure), and a red-tailed hawk. The kestrel was my favorite; for such a (relatively) tiny bird, it was so fierce, and yet seemingly wise like an owl as well. The peregrine falcon and the red-tailed hawk were students’ favorites.
There were a few of us who—during the course of our already incredibly busy one-year term—were interested in getting more involved with the raptor program, but as a general rule, the Raptor Coordinator usually shot us down, and it wasn’t as if we had that much free time, anyway.
Occasionally she’d let one or two of us help her chop up frozen mice or help with cleaning tasks, but generally, she was self-sufficient and preferred it that way.
There was one naturalist, however, who was far more persistent than the rest of us, badgering the Raptor Coordinator at every opportunity for chances to help. And in time, she earned the Raptor Coordinator’s trust, graduating from preparing food and cleaning to helping with feedings, and then even to handling the birds.
By the end of our year, she’d progressed to the point of co-presenting the raptor program, and when she was offered a chance to stay on for a second year, she really grew into the role, even occasionally presenting the program by herself with the red-tailed hawk as the Raptor Coordinator came to trust her more and more and as she herself got more comfortable with the birds, especially the red-tailed hawk.
As a result of that experience, only two years out of college she was offered a position as a Raptor Coordinator for a small park a few counties over when her second year ended. Within a few years, she’d actually taken over the park’s educational programming, and now, fifteen years later, she runs a park and all of its programming.
Yes, her college degree was in recreation and tourism, but that isn’t what got her to where she is today. Instead, it was her passion for raptors, and her willingness to do anything the Raptor Coordinator needed from her, that helped her get her start.
Where she is today was the result of asking questions, being curious, and a willingness to work hard. And that’s the case for so many of my peers—and former students—who now work in an outdoor or environmental field.
In any field, curiosity can be an asset—but in science-adjacent and education-related fields (like environmental education), that is especially true. In any field, a willingness to work hard can and may help you get ahead.
If there is a passion you have for something, think about ways you can volunteer—what are ways you can show both your curiosity and willingness to work hard? Not only do those opportunities give you a chance to shine and build work experience that can help you land a dream job later, but they can help you build connections and a network that can help you get interviews and learn about job openings.
I know I’ve been suggested for a few job openings as a result of connections I’ve built doing things that were important to me. A desire to volunteer with and tutor at-risk youth became a student support services position at the local community college and, in time, an opportunity to help educators better scaffold their instruction for ESL students.
A desire to help out with local trail races turned into running the behind-the-scenes logistics for one of the largest race series in the country. Time and time again, both in my life and in the lives of others, I’ve seen this combination work to help people get ahead in finding the work they’re truly passionate about.
So ask yourself:
What is it you’re passionate about?
Or, absent that, what is it you’re interested in learning more about?
How can you volunteer or otherwise get more experience?
For some of you, you might be able to shadow someone in your desired field or expertise. If, for instance, you’re interested in solar farms, you may be able to start by taking a tour and asking questions. From there, you might see if there might be an opportunity to shadow a technician. A similar path might work if you’re interested in wind energy, after which you can seek out technician training programs.
A note of caution, here:
You also have to protect yourself and your energy levels.
I’ve seen numerous students, for instance, find shadowing opportunities and throw themselves fully into volunteering, only to let their jobs and their classwork suffer as a result. Ultimately only you can determine for yourself what a proper work-life balance looks like for you, how much sleep you need, and more. I make this caution from experience, however, so even as you seek out your dreams, be sure to take care of yourself, too.
Don’t be afraid to seek out that which excites you and which you are passionate about, provided you’re also willing to put in the work. Not every aspect of any job is glamorous; far more time was spent chopping up frozen mice than in educational programming, for instance, when it came to the Raptor program.
But that didn’t stop my friend, nor should it stop you. The right career is out there, waiting, for you to find your way to a job you can believe in.
What are you waiting for?
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