Story written by Gina Zanarini
I was seven years old. It was career day at school. I walked into class clad head to toe in explorer-like khaki, with a rubber snake draped around my neck and toy lizards glued to the rest of me. I had to explain to my small town teacher not only that I was a herpetologist, not a zookeeper, but what herpetology even meant. The only reason I knew that word was because my father was a state park manager. This meant I grew up with few neighbours and spent my childhood playing in a place preserved for wildlife. I knew early on that places like these had inherent worth and deserved protecting.
There are a few different versions of “worth” in my mind; we’ll start with the financial version. Obviously, I had no illusions that I would become rich doing the work I went to school for – and into debt – intending to follow. Fortunately, due to scholarships, I only had one year of school to pay for out of pocket, which actually put me way ahead of most college graduates in America.
Unfortunately, my first three jobs were internships of some form, where I got paid less than $5/hour… We used to joke we were paid in sunrises and sunsets since we’d be up early and working late. Three years after I had graduated with a B.S. in Wildlife Science, I finally got a “real” job making $16/hour. I. Felt. Rich. The catch? Seasonal job, I’d only be employed for six months. And if any of you have ever tried to find winter work in wildlife in the US, you’ll know it is just about impossible. Since that job, I’ve had two other similar positions, also seasonal…
To live the entire year working only half of it is crazy hard financially. And when your resume is all intensely specific bat jobs; food service and retail employers seem too confused to hire you. I took out credit cards and a personal loan over time and racked up a decent amount of debt.
Recently, I entered into a debt settlement program where they hilariously told me that I was a great candidate because I literally had no net worth of my own. So it’d be like squeezing water out of a rock for collectors to expect the full amount back. I don’t own a home, the amount of things I own fits easily in the bed of my financed truck, and I think the most expensive thing I own is actually the bed I bought five years ago.
Money doesn’t buy happiness though, they say (which is only correct to a degree, but I won’t go there), so let’s talk about self-worth. At times, in certain jobs, I have felt valued and an integral part of something, absolutely. Overall though, in my career, I’m not sure I have been.
My first hint that I was not being valued appropriately was when I saw the paper that we had landowners sign for a final estimate of how much it would cost them for us to remove invasive species from their land. My hours were billed to them at $15/hour. At the time, I was being paid $5…. Excuse me?? It was my first job, so I pushed that deep down inside me and just told myself these were the dues I had to pay to get more high paying jobs.
Fast forward to my fifth job – my dream non-profit working with bats (my species of choice). I haven’t mentioned this explicitly, but up until the end of this position, my work was my LIFE. I based all my life moves upon my career; it was definitely where I defined my worth. A very odd scenario played out at this position – and long story short, I was fired with no warning, for made up reasons, for expressing an opinion that I was asked to give. To be fired for no reason from my dream organisation, when I had given up so much to take this job, broke me. I thought my career was over, and if my career over, so was my life.
After months of soul searching while speaking to former employers, friends, and family, a change started in me. My worth was in all the friends I had made and kept over the years who stood by me, knowing that I could probably visit them only once a year – if that. It came from my family, who has always supported me despite the tumultuous career choices that stress them out.
More recently, it comes from my relationship. I put off dating for 29 years because I didn’t believe anyone would stay with someone knowing their significant other would often be long distance. Thankfully, I have found such a patient, understanding person. The worth comes from working ANY job, and knowing you are doing your best in it. The point is that it can’t ever come from a single thing, because when you lose that thing, it destroys your whole world.
Many past supervisors have given me the same advice when I struggle to leave old jobs for new ones. “You are replaceable to most jobs; you have to do what is best for you career-wise, not for the organisation you’re working for.” Of course, that’s not saying burn all your bridges, just that you have to look after yourself.
I no longer sacrifice decent pay for cool projects, I can’t afford to. I won’t suffer supervisors or co-workers that berate me in exchange for a high profile reference with name recognition. I won’t stay stagnant at a position with no intentions of eventually hiring me year-round or at least promoting me. Heck, I won’t even share a room with a co-worker anymore if that’s in the housing description.
And all of that is okay because it cuts out stress inducers and promotes fulfilment for me. Of course, I still want to work in our field; our jobs are awesome and people are envious of our careers, but mostly because they don’t comprehend the struggles that go with them.
To end on a positive note, I still wouldn’t trade the majority of my career to be out of debt and in a more stable life. I’ve counted endangered bats in the world’s longest cave. I’ve lived in a colony of over 20,000 terns, where I watched babies I protected finally fledge. I’ve helped necropsy whale carcasses and physically carried (with help) a dehydrated Leatherback sea turtle back to the ocean. I’ve had bison in my backyard and tarantulas as roommates.
Regardless of whether I stay in the field for another 2 years or 40, just as stubborn and committed as I was at 7, I no longer plan on compromising my worth and I hope we can all get to a point where we don’t have to anymore.
To see more of Gina’s adventures follow @jeanthebiobum