Written by Katie Davis
I’ve been debating whether or not I should submit a story to LC for several months and today things finally fell into place that I felt like I could do it. Someone in the LC USA chat asked for advice on how to answer the greatest strengths/weaknesses questions in interviews, and Jessie, the founder of Lonely Conservationists posted on the Instagram story about embracing the things that scare her. Those two things finally convinced me that maybe mine is a story that someone in this community needs to hear.
This is a story about two people at my university who completely changed my life and probably have no memory of doing so- and they did so before I had even enrolled.
When I was a senior in high school, I thought I had my whole future figured out. Inspired by Jane Goodall’s book Hope for Animals and their World: How Endangered Species are being Rescued from the Brink, I had decided that I wanted to go into wildlife medicine, and that if I failed (since it is a very small and competitive field), I could always be a companion animal vet as I had always wanted.
The mother of a friend of mine volunteers as a recruiter for Louisiana State University, and she set up a private tour for me (real fancy, I know). Part of this tour included a meeting with some kind of undergraduate adviser in the College of Agriculture, Mary Claire. She sat me and my mom down in her office and asked me what I wanted to do.
“I want to be a wildlife vet and work on captive breeding and reintroduction programs doing artificial insemination.”
I said, or at least it was something along those lines.
“You don’t want to be a vet.” She replied, “You want to do research.”
This was an incredibly bold statement to make to someone who dreamed of being a vet from the moment they learned what the word meant around age five or six. It actually made me angry, and I ranted to my mom the whole seven hour drive back to Dallas.
But the funny thing is, she was right.
This was in October of my senior year of high school (for my southern hemisphere readers, this is very close to the beginning), and I was enrolled in an internship course where every other day I spent five hours working at a small animal clinic. By the end of the year I hated it. The business side of things frustrated me and at the end of it all they didn’t end up treating me very well (they basically “forgot” that I was supposed to be a vet tech intern and put me in reception more and more).
My back-up plan no longer appealed to me. By this time, I had accepted an amazing scholarship offer from LSU, and returned in April to attend an early orientation and schedule my classes.
Now seems like a good time to mention that I cry when I get frustrated. I always have. The number of nights that I spent sobbing inconsolably on my bedroom floor, overwhelmed by the workload of the ridiculous number of AP classes I took, is impossible to count. You’ll see why this is important in a moment.
At the orientation, it seemed like everyone else around me already knew what classes they were going to take, but I had no idea where to even start. I was looking at the course catalogue and the guide for my major, and nothing made sense. How could I possibly know where to start, especially with the credit I was bringing in from high school? So, I did the logical thing, and went to see the counsellor in the “University College of the Freshman Year” which is where they kept telling us to go if we were confused.
I sat outside an office waiting my turn, barely holding back tears, got called in, said my major, and was told that students in the College of Agriculture didn’t get advised by UCFY, they get advised directly in their college.
I started crying.
Between the tears I tried to explain why I was crying and this kind woman whose name I don’t remember asked me if I wanted her to call the student Mental Health Centre, because it seemed to her that I had anxiety.
I turned down the offer to speak to a counsellor, but I walked away with a word that, in my 10 + years of breaking down in classrooms and counsellors’ offices, no one had ever thought to say. Anxiety. When classes began later that year, so did my therapy sessions, and the woman whose office I cried in will never know that she so fundamentally changed my life.
I stated at the beginning of this that the reason I decided to write this blog is because someone asked about the greatest strength/weakness question in the group chat. And I know it may seem that the first story had nothing to do with the second. But they are intricately connected.
The day I realised Mary Claire was right, and I did not want to be a vet (which was many months after she initially said it), my future became much more uncertain. I entered a phase which I had not experienced since the death of my first dog made me doubt being a vet – I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up.
This uncertainty, as someone with anxiety, was terrifying. But it was shockingly good for me. College became this new world of exploration, not just a means to an end (the end being a DVM). I got a research job, worked on someone else’s project, and eventually got to the point where I was the one proposing new questions and new methods.
I discovered that if (as Jessie said on her story today) I embrace the scary things, good things usually happen. So, I started making decisions that way. I wanted to improve my Spanish, so I did a month-long immersion program in Argentina, living with a host family. While there, I met my partner of (now) over two years. This experience fired up the wanderlust and helped me get used to making mistakes (as they are inevitable in language learning) and the next year I dived straight into a semester abroad at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Five months on the other side of the world, far away from everything I had every known. There, I chased kangaroos, assessed plant herbivory in the mallee, and caught fairy wrens outside of Brisbane. This past (northern hemisphere) summer, I spent a month living in Corrientes, Argentina with two park rangers and their son, speaking absolutely no English, and catching nightjars.
And the thing I want you to know about all of this, is that I was terrified, every single time. It doesn’t matter how many times I embark on something new, it still scares the crap out of me. I cry, I doubt myself, I don’t know if I can do it, but somehow, my bag gets packed, I get on the plane, I pass immigration, and I start a new adventure. Obviously not all of my challenges have involved international travel, but I’ve learned that if something scares me, that probably means I should do it.
Which brings me to the greatest strength/weakness question. My answer is a bit cliché, but I use it because it’s the truth: perfectionism. My greatest strength is my perfectionism (which is a product of my anxiety) because it pushes me to constantly be better, to never be stagnant, to try new things and be a better person even when it scares me half to death. But my greatest weakness is my perfectionism and some of the other aspects of my anxiety, because it makes me doubt myself, criticise myself, put myself down. It makes me procrastinate and hesitate. It leads to long hours crying for little to no reason, negative cyclical thought patterns, and a whole lot of self-doubt. Obviously, I put a positive spin on it in interviews, but I thought y’all deserved to know the truth.
I spent a year and a half in therapy. I built up a support network. I discovered new interests, new countries, new cultures, new people. I learned what worked for me and what didn’t. But I still get scared.
I graduate in May.
I’ve decided to take a gap year before applying to graduate school, because, guess what? I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. But I’m a little more okay with that now. The fear, the anxiety, has become an old friend. A mean, slightly abusive friend sometimes, but one whose message I can now hear: “you’re doing too much,” “you need to slow down,” “this new thing is scary,” “you haven’t slept enough,” (yes, sometimes that’s the reason). I don’t always get the message in time, but I’m constantly learning.
I hope this helps some of you.
It’s okay to be afraid, to be uncertain, to not know what to do. But sometimes, when you’re feeling those things, that means you have to do it. And I firmly believe each and everyone of the Lonely Conservationists has the strength within them to keep fighting the good fight, both within themselves, and with the world.
I love all of you.
For more of Katie, check out @katiehammocks on Instagram