Written by Jessie Panazzolo

A common focus around the discussions I have been having since creating this community has been education. Some people don’t believe they have had enough formal training to identify as a conservationist, some people are trying to figure out which tertiary education path to take to maximise their potential in the field, and others are drowning in data during studies and are unable to stay afloat.

To tell my truth, I am not super proud of my university experience and I don’t have my undergraduate or honours degree framed on my wall. For me, university was not about getting a fancy piece of paper, wearing a cap and gown or even about lining up a job directly after, but much more so the opportunities that came from my university experience. Let me explain.

I wasn’t originally going to do my honours degree as no professors from my first university worked with organisms I was really passionate about. My main option was studying emu populations in the Mount Lofty Ranges and at that stage in my life, I didn’t want to study something for a year “just because” when I wasn’t super into what I was studying. No offence to emus; ratites are cool – but not cool enough. It wasn’t until I almost got a job studying orangutans in oil palm plantations that I decided that if I was going to do research for a job, I may as well get qualified at the same time.

I approached another university with an inquiry about completing honours while working remotely. As luck would have it, a professor just transferred to the university who had contacts in North Sumatra and would be able to facilitate the project. Unfortunately – or fortunately – the job did not go ahead, but none the less, I proceeded with the steps to conduct research for the university in the rainforests of North Sumatra with aspirations for an orangutan behaviour research project.

That year, I found myself waking up in a small, cabin-style structure in the middle of the Leuser Ecosystem – one of the most biodiverse rainforest ecosystems in the world. I joined a PhD student and an existing honours student while they gathered information about their studies and I worked on developing mine for the following year. Long story short, an orangutan tried to kill us by ripping a tree out from the earth and pushing it down in our direction. After running for my life through the trees with the real threat of death looming over me, I decided to leave orangutan behaviour to the brave scientists and instead, address my increasing curiosity about all the elephant poop I was seeing in the restoration site.

After two weeks, the other students left and I wondered why I was so adamant about staying for the whole month. I was suddenly super aware that I was the only woman around and I did not know my cultural place or how to understand anyone around me. I went upstairs and hid until someone gave me a hint as how to be. Soon enough, one of the guys called me downstairs and asked if I wanted some noodles – except I had no idea what he was asking me and I was pleasantly surprised when he handed me the bowl. For the rest of the day, myself and the field worker who had reached out to me got out our notebooks and tried to understand each other.

At the end of the month, I may have looked different, but I was one of them. I could speak enough Bahasa to shit talk all day while we followed orangutans through the forest from dawn until dusk. I was darker – from the dirt or sun, I don’t really know – covered head to toe in leech bites and ten kilos leaner from walking for 12 hours a day and eating too many chillies. I was a totally different person. I even dreamed in Indonesian.

The next year I started my studies for real. My research looked at how elephants and orangutans used newly restored forest that was until very recently oil palm plantation. Let me tell you; that year was a mixed bag of emotions. My supervisor turned out to be very egotistical and not very fair to me. He told me I could never get anywhere without using his name and he tried to restrict me from partaking in events that would be crucial to my learning experience. To prove him wrong, I made my own connections; I made new friends in Indonesian locals, foreign students and many established international conservationists. I spoke at conservation festivals and had lead experts asking me for my advice and I won an award at a biodiversity conference in Singapore for my research on my way home. My supervisor was not impressed with this and did not let me have a moderation meeting at the end of my studies when I returned back to Australia.

If I think about the positives of doing my honours research, it was the opportunities I had to work and connect with industry people in real life. It was the times where I was able to find out facts about our world and use them to inspire many like-minded scientists. I immersing myself in a new place and learning how to be a part of it, from the language to the cultural behaviours. If I had stayed in the university to complete my degree, it would have been me battling a man who didn’t want me to succeed and getting docked opportunities that every other student had. This is why I have mixed feelings about education.

Arguably, my experience in Indonesia networking with the top conservationists in the industry and gaining real field experience is worth more to my career in conservation than the degree itself. Realistically, right now, the only conservation work I am involved in and the only people that are paying me are the people I met in Indonesia or through those contacts.  The CEO of the Indonesian organisation I work for once showed me his university grades and he said he wasn’t proud of them. He told me that passion and what you do for the environment is worth more than what grades you get in school. After my experience, I totally believe him.

Obviously, education will be different for everyone, and not everyone will have my experience with it or my opinions regarding academia, but if you are worried about struggling through a degree in order to make it in the field, let me tell you: study is not your only gateway into the world of saving plants and wildlife. Volunteer, get experience and get out there. Learn skills, use skills, meet people and attend events. Most importantly, direct your attention to one sector, location or project and go ham. Immerse yourself in the place you want to be and you will grow into your own role there – it’s inevitable, I promise.

From almost getting killed by an orangutan to becoming the fundraising manager of an orangutan based organisation, I never knew study could guide me through this weird and wonderful journey. But at the same time, did I need the university to do so? I am not too sure.

For more of Lonely Conservationists and Jessie, follow @lonelyconservationists and @ecolojesst on Instagram