Written by Andrea Godoy Mendoza
I grew up in a country with a wildly biodiverse and exuberant natural world but where, ironically, starting a conversation about sustainability or conservation will often get you labelled as an idealist or a hippie (at best). I may not have been fully aware of what I was getting myself into when I checked “Biology” as my chosen career path on my university’s admissions form back in 2012, but I am so glad I did.
In a country where most of the population struggles to feed themselves three times a day, choosing to pursue a career in conservation can seem almost tone-deaf. I could have chosen to become a doctor (that was my answer to the “what do you want to be when you grow up” question when I was younger), or a digital marketer, or a lawyer, or any other profession that is perceived to contribute more to this society, or one that could potentially make me a decent amount of money to “move up” a bit.
However, my desire to study the intricate workings of the natural world around me and to understand the impact human activities have on the environment was far stronger than the need to fit into this society’s standards.
Once they learned that I wanted to be a biologist, many people (and I mean many) had the audacity to make comments such as “you will never find a job with that degree”, or they would look to my mom and dad and give them a look that said, “guess we know who will be living with you her whole life”, raised eyebrows and all. They were oblivious to the fact that my parents 100% believed in me and supported me from day uno.
And so, regardless of the harsh comments and negativity, the girl who was once frightened by palm trees and “bugs” and was not particularly a fan of “getting dirty”, enrolled in the biggest (and public) university in the country to pursue a degree in Biology and, HOLY SMOKES, have I been on a wild ride ever since.
Having a generally broad degree means I dabbled in many fields before I had to choose what I wanted to specialize in on the last year of college. Early on, I was obsessed with primates (I still hold them very near and dear to my heart), and I dreamt of being the next Jane Goodall. To be honest, my favourite group of organisms is mammals, and I soon rediscovered my absolute adoration for ocean life by picking up a few studies on cetacean ecology and behaviour. I have always been drawn to the ocean and its magical wonders and was more than comfortable with being in the water, so making the decision to focus on marine biology was not a hard (or surprising) one at all.
However, due to my degree not being specifically in marine biology (I have specialties in Zoology AND Aquatic Sciences), I have had people in both professional and non-professional settings tell me I should stop introducing myself as a marine biologist because, according to them, I am not really one. I guess being out in the field doing the work of a marine biologist daily meant absolutely nothing to them. I have even had peers and colleagues question my experience and potential due to not yet having my university diploma (haven’t had a chance yet to do graduation paperwork since I have been busy working non-stop since finishing college). I may not have openly admitted it then, and I kind of hate doing so now, but these types of interactions brought me down a little bit (ok, a lot).
I started to wonder if maybe they were right. Maybe I really wasn’t a good marine biologist, maybe I wasn’t even really one at all. I started believing that my experience was not enough to be doing the work I was doing and that maybe I had been thinking too highly of myself in the past couple of years. I convinced myself that passion and drive for what I was doing was not enough.
I was plagued with these detrimental thoughts of not being enough, imposter syndrome at its worst. I found myself comparing what I was doing to others’ work in the field and started to think that maybe I was falling short. Am I as good as I think I am? Is what I’m doing even relevant or helpful? Were the negative comments thrown my way a reality check that I maybe needed? Was I taking up space I did not deserve? I let the self-doubt take over and I started second-guessing myself in a way I never had before. I never really let it show but I was feeling very deflated for several months.
Thankfully, I never stopped working hard to open doors for myself. Shortly after taking (and acing) the last class for the degree in biology in 2018, I applied for the Jim Engel Ocean Steward scholarship at the Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Center in Utila, Honduras. I was chosen as the scholarship recipient and, even though it had only been a month since my father suddenly passed away, I made the difficult choice to make my way down to Utila in early 2019. Despite the pain and the trauma of such a huge loss, I chose to make the most of the experience and I think I was ready to further pursue my scuba and conservation dreams. The sacrifice paid off and in just 5 months I managed to get certified as a PADI Divemaster and interned for the WSORC as a research assistant, learning more than I could’ve ever hoped for.
I put in so much effort and dedication into this position that they offered me a job as community outreach coordinator for the organization right before my placement was about to end. It was through this role that I discovered a new passion: community-based conservation and science communication. I also discovered I am quite a good teacher when it comes to marine biology and conservation topics and that I am a super-competent dive professional. I learned so much from working for the WSORC and was able to achieve the highest position (Marine Conservation Director) in the organization after a little over 2 years of working for them.
I fulfilled that role as best as I could for almost a year and, despite all the post-COVID hardships, I think I managed to positively influence more than a handful of young marine conservationists and leave a legacy for the organization. However, despite really enjoying my role, I started to feel that I was ready for something new. I wanted a new challenge and, almost as if perfectly planned by the universe, an opportunity to work in one of the most pristine and organized marine protected areas in the country materialized from thin air. After almost 3 years of being associated to the WSORC, I decided to leave a job I loved and was comfortable with to fulfill that deep desire to do more with my knowledge and potential.
I now find myself writing this from a remote little island off the coast of Honduras where I am a member of the marine conservation and social development team of an organization that is part of huge network of marine protected area managers, conservationists, scientists, community leaders and other stakeholders. I am doing so much conservation fieldwork again that my little biologist heart (and body) can barely take it. I have pretty much jumped from one dream job to another and am absolutely loving it.
I know that I have been lucky in many ways and that not every conservationist gets to do work they’re truly passionate about all the time. I am not sharing this to shove it in anyone’s face. Not even the faces of all those who have doubted me and maybe even continue to do so. I am sharing this for myself, because despite having had moments where I severely questioned what I was doing with my life and seriously considered giving up, I have managed to always stay true to myself and never stopped chasing my dreams and fighting for what I believe in.
I especially hope my story inspires other young conservationists to not be deterred by negative people and situations. I know that can sound a bit cheesy and it is often easier said than done but I stand behind the notion that, even if no one believes in us, believing in ourselves can take us a long way.
For more of Andrea, check out @memoirofamermaid on Instagram