Featured image: Kimberly collecting marine life samples.

Overwhelming Choices

The months of May and June can be times of big change for those who are graduating high school or college, and whether you are 18, 22 or 52, the choices that need to be made regarding next steps can feel overwhelming – what do I want to do? And how do I get there? I have a high school senior who will graduate next month, and while she has chosen a college, the path to a career is still a bit hazy, which is just fine in our household.

Taking the Unexpected Path Forward

I can’t remember the reaction when I informed my parents as I was graduating college that I was going to go to graduate school for Marine Science, but I think that’s because there wasn’t a lot of fanfare about it. I was a pretty level-headed kid and they assumed I knew something about what I was getting myself into, but as a first-generation college and graduate school student, it was all very unknown in that moment what the next few years would lead to. Today’s college costs are so much higher that the focus has skewed from becoming a learned individual towards getting a good job as being the endpoint of those four, six or eight years. If it is reassuring for any of you out there facing similar choice yourself or looking at your beautiful child who is proposing an unexpected path forward, take heart in the fact that despite not getting to work with dolphins or whales (I studied microscopic invertebrates!), I have been gainfully employed over the years and have had some fun along the way.  

The glamorous life of an aquarium staffer!

Being Open to the Alternative Opportunities that Add Depth of Character

I would also encourage you to be open to alternative opportunities – after six years of college, it might not have seemed the wisest choice to then propose to my parents that I was going to take a one-year volunteer stint as a VISTA (which became AmeriCorps VISTA that year, I still have the T-shirt with the  first logo!). But they were very proud and supportive of my desire to not enter the working world yet. I had a choice of a few options and decided to work in Senior Citizen Outreach in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Which was not in any way related to marine science, but that’s what came up and I was game for the challenge to assist this rural area. And oh yes, I waitressed to pay the rent. But that opportunity to spend a year giving back to my community full-time was one I will never regret, and I learned valuable life lessons during that year. Including how to work in a professional office, how hard it is to be a waitress, and the value of good shoes for people who are on their feet all day! I’m also proud to say that some of the programs we implemented that year are still going strong.

I coached volleyball when I was teaching high school. We won the tournament!

Making Ends Meet in the Early Years

When I was, finally, finally ready to go get a job, the jobs were not waiting for me. I ended up meandering for a year – teaching a few semesters of college and working in an optical shop, until I landed what may have felt like a dream job working for an aquarium that was just beginning to be constructed. At last, those Marine Scientist credentials got me in someplace! I spent my first day on the job monitoring the blood pressure of a shark and thought I had won the lottery. It was fun (sharks and lionfish and octopus – I have stories to share if you offer me a beverage). But unfortunately, it wasn’t a sustainable wage, and every week a fresh new face came knocking on the door wanting my job for less money, so it didn’t seem like a sustainable career choice. I taught marine science at a private high school for a year and half, which was interesting and fun in its own way, but still didn’t feel like the right fit. By then I had a husband who was working as an environmental consultant, who suggested I pull together a resume and give it a try. I was hired as a wetland scientist and permitting specialist shortly after and have moved forward on this environmental consulting career path since then.

Graduating with my Master’s in Marine Science from the University of South Carolina.

Taking Comfort in Knowing that Not all Paths are Linear

So take heart – the path to a career may not be exactly straight; you may have to eat a lot of cheap meals and work hard in jobs that are just a way to make ends meet, but every job can provide an opportunity to grow if you look hard enough. I still know many of my fellow Marine Science students who have had paths more, or less, straight than mine, and it has been fun to see them grow, change, thrive. None of them work with whales or dolphins!  The career you may end up loving or finding yourself successful in may not be the one you can see where you, or your child, is standing right now, but if you keep growing and being open to possibilities, you may find it. My co-worker Deb Coon recently decided on her “Grown Up” career at the young age of 50 and went back to school to obtain her degree. We are all proud of her accomplishments, and she serves as a role model for anyone who may be feeling like they still, after all this time, may not have the career they were looking for. Keep growing!   

Read Part II here to explore the future of Environmental Permitting as Kimberly looks back at her 30 year career in the field!