Story By Jade Arneson
I grew up fortunate enough to have woods, a creek, and 40 acres of farm land as my back yard. I spent considerable time outside as a kid. I clearly remember walking through the field and standing atop the hay bales, wandering down to the creek to have a picnic lunch, and staring up at that big old willow tree wondering if raccoons or an owl had made a home in the cavity left behind by a fallen limb. I also loved animals and remember being very fond of my cats. Often I’d pretend I was a veterinarian – my cats or my numerous Beanie Babies were my patients. Growing up I would always say I wanted to be a veterinarian or a scientist. What did it mean to be a scientist though? I remember as a young kid envisioning Erlenmeyer flasks, titrations, white coats and eye protection. Of course now I know that science is very broad and inclusive of many disciplines, like conservation, and even veterinary medicine, but as a young kid I had no idea. I can also say that “being a scientist” was not something my teachers or parents ever unpacked for me, it also wasn’t a career path that I was encouraged to pursue. Veterinary medicine, however, that was a career I knew a little bit more about, one that seemed easier met and more clearly defined, also one that my teachers and parents supported.
So, now that I’m 25 years old, with a Bachelors of Science and a Master’s of Science in the works, which career path did I end up pursuing? I chose science, specifically conservation, the perfect intersection between my dreams as a kid to be a veterinarian and a scientist. I gave veterinary medicine a try for quite some time, shadowing small animal veterinarians in high school and college and working on a dairy farm with their large animal vet. I was pre-vet through junior year of college, with a wildlife ecology major – my plan was to be a wildlife veterinarian. One day though, while sitting in organic chemistry, a pre-vet requirement, I decided I didn’t want to be a veterinarian…and not long after I decided I didn’t want to be in organic chemistry, so I dropped it – man was that liberating. A Wildlife Ecology major it was. I can’t fully explain my reasons to no longer pursue veterinary medicine, but I can say that at the time I was very excited and motivated by the thought that I’d be a wildlife biologist.
That excitement I felt as a junior in college at the thought of being a wildlife biologist is something that today has somewhat waned and it pains me to accept that and to think about why that is, but thanks to this great new group I can spend some time thinking and writing about it and hopefully find people who feel the same way.
Prior to graduating with my Bachelors of Science in Wildlife Ecology I had a job lined up with the Nature Conservancy. I remember thinking how great that was, to not even have graduated yet and have a job lined up; some of my classmates couldn’t say the same though. Before I knew it my summer employment with the Nature Conservancy was coming to a close and I was spending every evening in front of my computer searching the job boards. The thought of the next job was exciting but also equally terrifying and wrought with anxiety. Even now I remember that word document on my computer of jobs I had found and wanted to apply to, jobs that were all across the country, and several of which involved work on great gray owls and California spotted owls (I love birds). I never applied to any of those jobs though. Instead I emailed the local Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office and asked if there were any temporary employment or volunteer opportunities. They wrote back, indicating they had volunteer opportunities – I arranged my first day to be there to volunteer meanwhile calling back my old boss at the restaurant asking if she needed another staff member and how many hours a week I could get bartending. Thankfully, she needed the help.
January 2015, four months prior to my graduation, I met a guy when I was back home for the weekend; he is now my fiancé. March 8, 2015 he asked me out while driving back home after a trip to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore to see the ice caves. I will never forget hesitating to respond to him and prefacing my answer with “I just want you to know that this field isn’t very stable and I want to pursue it whole-heartedly, I’m just getting started” and he said, “I know, I’ll support you.” That day changed the outlook of my career. Thankfully my position with the Nature Conservancy was only one hour away from home (we have the same home town) and so he came up every weekend to visit or I came back home to visit. The reality of the situation, and of how torn I’d end up feeling, didn’t come until I made the decision to never apply to those jobs out west working with great grey owls and California spotted owls because that would mean leaving him. Leaving him for a field season was something I knew I could handle but could he? And how would I tell him? How would that conversation go? Would he be supportive like he promised?
The day came for me to start volunteering at the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office – I’d be assisting the fisheries department. I volunteered for two days and much to my amazement I was offered a full-time temporary position as a Biological Science Technician. “This never happens”, I kept telling myself, and the timing couldn’t have been better. It meant instead of sharing my concerns with Branden, I could share my happiness. It meant him and I could continue to live near one another and not have my career come between us. “We should be able to keep you on for a few months” is what I was told and that was a huge relief for me. I ended up really enjoying my time at the office and felt satisfied that I was continuing to grow as a professional versus just sitting behind the bar of a restaurant all day. But then the time came again to look for jobs, this time I applied for every one that sparked my interest, no matter where in the country it was. One day I collected myself and told Branden the jobs I had applied to and that I feel strongly about several and it ended up resulting in tears, heartache, and confusion.
I don’t know how I ended up convincing him, maybe he just came around and remembered the words we exchanged when he asked me out, but I took one of the jobs I had applied to and funny enough, it was a job working with California spotted owls – it’s like I was being gifted another chance, perhaps one with better timing, at those jobs out west working with owls that I declined earlier. We travelled out to California together by car, making a week-long trip out of it. Seeing him off on the plane back home wasn’t easy for either of us, but we got through it. That job was what I needed. I got to go off on a crazy wildlife adventure, the one you always hope for and dream about as a wildlife student. I also was able to dedicate time to myself and learn more about who I am. On top of all of that I met some great people, saw the beauty that is California, and helped conserve a species of owl that has seen significant population declines and habitat loss. While I was out there Branden and my best friend visited me, Branden’s mom also met me out there to drive home with me, so I got to connect with her better, and when I got home Branden proposed to me – this time my hesitation was all in asking if he had asked my dad’s permission first…!
Branden and I have been together almost four years now. After my job working with California spotted owls I saw myself back at the restaurant behind the bar but I also found myself back at the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office working full time. And thanks to a former co-worker at the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, I now am a graduate student and a research assistant at a local university pursuing a degree in Environmental Science and Policy and working on restoring wild rice to coastal wetlands in the Bay of Green Bay, Lake Michigan. Branden and I still live together, we moved about 40 minutes north so I could be closer to the university. In doing so we bought a house and now have also added a German Shepherd and two cats into the mix. I often wonder how long we’ll reside here and what lies ahead of me once I graduate with my Master’s degree. Part of me worries that there will be more tough conversations to be had and tears to be shed dependent on where I find job opportunities or get job offers, but I have to trust that Branden will support whatever decision I make.
Now that I’ve shared my story and bring it to a close, I want to end with saying that I’ve joined this group because I still struggle with forging my way through this fantastically challenging and sometimes defeating career. Sometimes I wonder if it’s too soon to have bought a house, to have signed on to dedicating my time and energy and resources to two cats and a dog, to have gotten engaged, even to have accepted this graduate position. I even sometimes doubt my place within this field and question if I should continue pursuing it and I think a lot of that doubt stems from the fact that this field is very unstable, competitive, and financially burdensome. Doubt also stems from friends and family members, and sometimes even significant others, who struggle to understand your passions and tenacity for this career. In addition, doubt is contributed by members of the public, the stakeholders that many of us in conservation work for, and by politics.
There is no doubt though that so far I’ve been blessed to have enough opportunities here to keep me busy, and what better than to learn more about the landscape that has been a large part of my life thus far and contribute to conserving it?
A fellow Lonely Conservationist,