Dear 17-year-old Lea,  

 I know that you are currently in the middle of a meltdown, and rest assured that even from the view over here (in the future!) I can tell you that it is absolutely valid. You really did try. You worked so hard and it is ok to be disheartened. You had a plan, you had it for years. You were led to believe this was your only shot, the only way into where you wanted to be, and now that chance has been missed.  

Even 20 years down the track, I still remember that picture you drew when you were about 7 years old. Yep, it is still clear as day! A ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ picture of you, working with the elephant at your hometown zoo. Of course, that was a very simplified notion of what you could be, and what it truly meant. But even whilst you dabbled with the idea of being a tightrope walker, becoming a princess, writer and/ or pop star (in no particular order of preference), you always came back to wanting to protect, conserve and preserve animal species.  

You were told to get certain grades in specific courses to qualify for the few relevant university degrees (available at the time) that would get you into this area of science. So there you were, you could see what you needed to do and you would not stray from that path.  You were so lucky to have friends that would tutor you, and teachers that went out of their way to also give extra help outside of class because they could see just how determined you were. Though it doesn’t feel that way now, there is no shame in the fact that academically, you couldn’t do it.  You’re not ‘too dumb’ and your life isn’t ‘over’ I promise.  

In fact, what a life you will have once you pick yourself up from here! I don’t really take enough time to reflect often but, man, you just keep soldiering on, and it is impressive.  What you do end up doing is navigating the way around the edges of your dream, thank you so much for that. Earning money in hospitality, some domestic animal work, some generic animal studies, selling doughnuts (you’ll hate it, but you needed the money and it probably built character).  Then comes an opportunity to work on a small project with a critically endangered tortoise species and it is here you fall in love with fieldwork.  

Sadly the project is only for 6 months and then it is back to skirting around doing office jobs until one day there is an opening at a wildlife park for a ‘Keeper’. I can’t imagine what your face looked like when you saw it in the newspaper adverts, but even talking about it now I can remember how it had felt. This job, which you only manage to get because the preferred applicant turned it down, changes your world forever. You learn so much, both good and bad, but ultimately this is where you realise that Australian native fauna is your true passion.  

Along this journey, you also meet people that you will not expect. Do you think you have the most amazing friends now? Well, look out, because for some reason you seem to collect these incredible humans and without them, you wouldn’t be where you are today. One, in particular, is pivotal in your next step. Now, heartbroken, you have to leave this job for financial reasons, the location is struggling and they let staff go. Warning, this is painful, a lot of things are going to be painful, but you got this.  

Back to this friend though, she not only helps you get a qualification that you never thought you would be able to achieve, she also gets your foot in the door at, you guessed it, the zoo you always dreamed of. In an amusing parallel she will actually work with the elephants, but, I digress. You will be blown away. You will be pinching yourself for months. Spoiler alert, you put in the work and you make it, you get a permanent position. On the day you find out, you actually don’t know what to do because suddenly the only thing you’ve ever been trying for is now real. Try and hold onto that feeling. Try and stay proud.  

It’s still hard, challenges just keep on coming. Trying to save everything is hard, compassion fatigue is common and you’ll get told you care too much. Being a female (although speaking from a place of privilege) is also still not easy in the workplace. You’ll also never believe how life has changed  (there’s a global pandemic dude, a virus that is spreading worldwide and putting huge pressure on our health care system and lives in general. Prepare to learn more about yourself than ever!).  

Whatever happens though, even if you end up not being able to do this indefinitely, you will never forget it or regret it. You’ve done so much, you’re going to do great, and it’s going to work out.  So don’t be so hard on yourself, please.  

 Much love and gratitude,  
37-year-old Lea 

Illustrated by Kimberly Hoffman @kimhoffy