To 15- year-old Maria,

 6 years wiser now, I have learned so much growing up and there’s a lot I would do differently if I could go back. Remember: the path you have chosen is not an easy one, but the best things in life seldom come easy.

Being a girl living in a 3rd world country, with protective parents and a passion for the unconventional – I can see how your dreams feel impossible right now. Not many people (including the people you love most) understand your ambitions and you feel like you will always be alone. I know you can’t imagine it getting any worse, thinking you’ve reached your limit.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel but I need you to understand the darkness. Growing up you will realize that women aren’t welcome in your field, that higher education is more complicated than you think, that wildlife isn’t even a field for women in Pakistan, that biologists don’t get paid a lot, that you will not have many friends in high-school who will want to listen to you talk about what you love. At times, you will feel the need to shrink yourself to make others comfortable, quiet down to remain in certain friendships and relationships. Life won’t always be fair to you. People will try to convince you that your dreams are too big and unrealistic – yes, even your family. These are all growing pains. 

At this age, it’s easy to think you know what you’re doing and end up taking yourself WAY too seriously. You really don’t need to have everything figured out at fifteen – and all the little mistakes you make are just that, little mistakes. Try not to get hung up on setbacks, instead use them as opportunities to learn something new. It’s okay not to know a lot of things, focus on learning anything you can at this time. That being said, it’s best for you not to take other people too seriously either, try to keep in mind that someone saying something about you doesn’t make it a fact. Focus on yourself, and your self-image, how do YOU see YOU? You’re the only person you have to be around forever, your relationship with yourself matters more than any other.

Conservation is such a broad field; it has so many little niches and branches. Most of the work we do is in the greys as opposed to black and white. Meaning, you don’t need to feel confined to a label or a box, lots of things are almost completely contextual. Try not to push yourself into a box out of social pressure, instead allow yourself to grow to form your own unique perspectives on conservation techniques and issues – and no, you don’t need anyone else to validate those for you. 

On the topic of friends, there’s so much to say. I know you feel alone and misunderstood – like nobody cares about what you have to say, nobody is interested. My love, this world is so big; your small-town high-school batch-mates aren’t the only people you’re ever going to meet. There is a whole community of people that would love to hear what you have to say, you just have to find your tribe. Understandably, it’s not easy, but you’ll feel so much more content when you feel heard and seen by people around you. Don’t waste too much time on people committed to misunderstanding you. 

Now listen here, you need to be your own best friend, you need to pull through. You need to pull through because you have the power to prove them all wrong, to be everything you’ve ever dreamed of. Block everyone out and do this for yourself, believe that you deserve your own love and support. You don’t have to make everyone happy, and you don’t have to prove yourself to anyone. Friends that you have to shrink around are friends not worth having. Being a woman is your superpower and you don’t need anyone to welcome you – you can shatter all the glass ceilings and dance on the broken glass. Be unfiltered and loud, you will be proud of a skin full of scars. Embrace your growth and embrace your rebellion, be the one to bring change. Let the walls crack, let the light in, stop believing you always have to be alone. You will inspire many with your journey on this path. 

With everything going on, it’s easy to start thinking this is the end. You need to get out of your head and stop taking people, AND YOURSELF so seriously. No matter what – your parents still love you and failing chemistry does not make you a failure. These are all just speed-bumps on a long road, it’s scary and uncertainty is uncomfortable but the comfort zone is a trap and nothing grows there. I have to tell you not to let anyone talk you out of it – let your passion be your companion through all the challenges you face on the way, especially when you feel alone. 

I read somewhere that beginnings always hide themselves in ends – so whenever you feel like you’re at the end of the line, remember that it’s only the beginning. You will have a life full of love, adventure and beautiful memories. Yes, you can have it all, everything you’ve ever wanted – you need to be brave. There’s a whole world outside this small town and its small minds, and it’s all waiting for you to take the leap, and dive head-first and fearlessly into everything you love.

 With all the love I wish I’d given you at 15,  21-year-old Maria

Written by Maria @rebelzoologist

Illustrated by Daisy Buckle @naturalcuriositystudio