Please give a brief description of your current position and where you're working.
I work as an interpretive naturalist for Eastman Nature Center in Maple Grove, MN. My job is to teach children and adults about nature. In the summer I mostly focus on summer camps. I have done everything from teaching camps about how to film a nature documentary to how to be a mad scientist and create fire tornadoes! During the school year I take classrooms to marshes to dip for aquatic invertebrates, I lead snowshoe hikes, and teach students how to perform muskrat surveys, among many other things. My job is to teach; my tools are snakes, salamanders, and toads; and my classroom is the forest, prairie, and marsh around my nature center.
What path did you follow to arrive at your current job?
I started working at the OLC at St. John's. I led my first public programs there. I also volunteered as much as I could at the St. John's Arboretum. That experience helped me to get a job at Voyageurs National Park the summer after my freshman year. I worked at Voyageurs during each of my summer breaks and volunteered at the Arboretum during the school year. After I graduated I spent one last summer at Voyageurs before moving to Minneapolis. Once in Minneapolis I applied for naturalist jobs for about 10 months before becoming a summer camp leader at Springbrook Nature Center in Fridley. I worked as a naturalist at Springbrook in the summer and Wood Lake Nature Center, in Richfield, during the school year for 2 years before being offered a part time position with Three Rivers Park District teaching cultural history at The Landing in Shakopee. Though it was part time, it was a big step because after almost seven years from when I first started teaching I was no longer a seasonal employee, I was permanent. A full-time position opened up at Eastman Nature Center and because I was a permanent employee with Three Rivers Park District I could apply for it. Eastman chose to hire me and I am now a permanent full time naturalist.
I was a seasonal employee with no benefits, vacation, or sick time for years. I had to apply for jobs at least twice a year, and sent in hundreds of applications before gaining my job at Eastman. I was never entirely sure if I would have a job the next season. However, for me it is a job that was worth all the sacrifices. The path I followed, of having many different seasonal jobs, is similar to the path most people in my field have followed.
What advice/suggestions would you have for students who might be interested in your career?
If you want to be a naturalist start volunteering at St. John's Arboretum. They are known throughout Minnesota for their exemplary programs. It was only because I volunteered at the Arboretum that I had enough experience to qualify for any of the jobs I worked after college.
In addition, work as a naturalist every summer of college. This is a highly competitive field and you need all of the experience you can get.
Start learning the plants and animals around St. John's. While any major can help you be a naturalist, you will have to know how to identify plants and animals and be able to teach people about them. Dr. Saupe has some great plant and maple syurping classes and Dr. Brown had an incredible ecology class.
Contact any naturalists you know, including me. The naturalist world is small and we often hear about jobs before they are posted. Networking is important. If you are interested in being a naturalist I would be happy to network with any Johnnie or Bennie.
Finally, don't give up. It will take years to get a full time job with benefits. You will get paid less than your friends, work weekends and evenings, and sometimes lose hope that you will ever get a permanent position. The sacrifices are worth it, however, and if you keep applying for jobs you will eventually get one. Then while your friend is working in an office, you can be getting paid to give boat tours or play capture the flag.
What skills are important in your field?
Flexibility- you never know what your students will be like or what the weather will throw at you. You have to be able to adapt your programs.
Patience- You will be dealing with a lot of kids. Patience is a must.
Creativity- You will have to create your own programs. You have to be creative enough to make it both fun and educational. I think I got most of my interviews because of a program I called, "Balloon Animals of the Fur Trade Era."
Love of learning- This career forces you to be a jack-of-all-trades. One class you'll be teaching about snakes and the next class might be about Minnesota in the 1800s. You will have to learn a lot about a lot of topics.
What activities/experiences were helpful at CSB/SJU (and elsewhere) in preparation for this career?
Volunteering at the St. John's Arboretum was the single most helpful thing in preparation for my career at SJU. The classes from my Environmental Studies and Biology majors gave me the knowledge I needed to teach programs and classes. Any major will work for a career as a naturalist, but Biology gives you a strong background in the science you will be teaching, and Environmental Studies gives you a strong background on the environmental issues you will be teaching.
The most important thing to prepare me for my career was working as a naturalist every summer during college. The experience was invaluable to me professionally and on my resume.
What is the most satisfying/rewarding part of your job?
The most rewarding part of my job is knowing that I am making a difference. There are so many issues facing us today, especially environmental and social. When I am teaching a student that salamanders are able to regrow their brains (with the help of scientists) or that turtles survive the winter by breathing through their butt and I see the student's eyes light up, I know I have sparked an interest in nature and in science. Maybe if I create enough sparks I will be able to see the world change for the better. Because in the end, a society that lives in balance with nature will have to, by default, address both the environmental and social issues that so desperately need fixing.