When I was five, my family started taking annual trips that changed my life. We went to a small cabin in northern Pennsylvania. Coming from Brooklyn, this was my first experience in a forest; I can recall my fascination with each new discovery, from the chorus of spring peepers and katydids, to my first and only encounter with a screech owl clutching its prey. Each year I would anticipate our summer vacations and spend the year reading books about wildlife and drawing pictures of wild places and animals that, at the time, seemed so foreign. On one trip we came across a wildlife technician securing a radio collar to a sedated black bear. The technician kindly beckoned me over to see what he was doing, and to stress the concerns of feeding wildlife. That’s when I knew I wanted to pursue a career working with wildlife.
My goals, however, came to a screeching halt when I started high school. It was a difficult time in my life, and I grew so uncomfortable in my own skin that I turned to drugs to escape my reality. I dropped out of high school in my freshman year, and was abusing heavy drugs by the time I was 14. My parents sent me to school in Florida, hoping a change in environment would help straighten me out, but I only got worse. My aunt introduced me to crack cocaine and my life spiraled completely out of control. It is painful but necessary to keep this dark chapter of my life, and the people I hurt during it, in front of me.
When I was 16 I moved back to New York and voluntarily admitted myself to an intensive adolescent substance abuse program, and slowly picked up the pieces of the life I had thrown away. My years in treatment were difficult, but helped shape me into who I am. I spent 14 months in an inpatient program in upstate New York, where I was able to revisit my love of the natural world, which I had embraced as a child. I then returned to the city to complete two additional years of outpatient while also getting my GED and working.
When I was 18 I became a licensed wildlife rehabilitator; I was working at a veterinarian’s office and was surprised to see how many injured and orphaned wild animals were coming in and being turned away. During the warmer months especially, when there are many young and animals are active, wildlife rehab work was rewarding, but also exhausting.
With time I realized I wanted to work with wildlife on a bigger scale, and started looking into ways to get involved with conservation. I decided to go to college, and I heard about Paul Smith’s through one of my counselors, who spent her summers in the Adirondacks.
I went up for an open house and was inspired by Dr. David Patrick as he talked about the Fisheries and Wildlife program and his work with chameleon conservation in Tanzania. He was an integral part of the program, and a great role model. Paul Smith’s was the only college I applied to – I refused to settle for any other school. I got accepted, and started classes in January of 2011, two months after completing my program.
At first I was nervous, being fresh out of treatment and living on a college campus. So many of my peers started messing up in college. At first I felt isolated and out of place, and would lie about my “high school years.” Coincidentally, a close friend of mine from the program moved back to her family’s house near campus, where her mother also decided to return to school. They offered that I could live with them, and treated me like family, and helped me make it through that first dark frozen winter. I’ll never forget how cold it was. There was a day early in the semester that hit -37°F; and there was still snow on the ground when the semester ended in May. There were days that semester that I thought I made a mistake going back to school.
As the semester went on and winter slowly melted into spring, I began to immerse myself in the “culture” of Paul Smith’s. It is such a small and intimate campus; students, staff, and professors seemed far more friendly and genuine then I was used to in Brooklyn. Paul Smith’s and the Adirondacks started to become my home.
I never imagined I would have experienced the things I did as a student. I spent most of my free time volunteering with a wildlife refuge and on local research projects. My weekends were filled with rescuing injured wildlife, catching and banding birds of prey, and running through the forest with wolves on moonlit nights. I spent three summers abroad as a student, thanks to the Sterling Tompkins Scholarship. Two of those trips were in Belize: the first working with a wildlife veterinarian to treat and rehabilitate primates and other wildlife confiscated from the illegal pet trade, the latter a camera-trap study to determine the impacts of logging on jaguar abundance and density. I also took a wildlife conservation and management course through the University of Pretoria in South Africa, where I learned about vastly different approaches to managing game species than are used in the North American model. Since then I have grown passionate about the conservation of African wildlife, and have been eager to be a part of it.
One of the most interesting wildlife seminars I attended while at Paul Smith’s was presented by John and Terese Hart of the Lukuru Foundation. The Lukuru Foundation oversees several projects geared towards protecting great apes and other species within the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was amazed by their passion and their collaboration with the Congolese people to establish such an important grassroots organization. I grew determined to be a part of it and with the help of the Harts’ daughter and Paul Smith’s Professor, Sarah Hart, and despite much resistance from concerned family, friends, and professors – I found a way to do it. Upon graduating from Paul Smith’s College, the Harts put me in contact with Dr. Kate Detwiler, a professor at Florida Atlantic University who led the genetic analysis of the recently discovered Lesula (Cercopithecus lomamiensis) in Congo. I immediately applied to, and have been accepted, as a Teacher’s Assistant and graduate student at FAU’s Environmental Science program. The Harts’ team has discovered another species of primate, the “inoko, which I intend to research as part of my master’s program.
Coming into Paul Smith’s I felt insecure and disadvantaged. The experiences I had and the support of my professors led me to become a confident student and researcher. As I am preparing to start my first graduate semester I anticipate what is in store for me in Florida and Congo, and in the greater sense the work and experiences that will continue to shape me into an effective conservation biologist.