Cramming for final presentations; the last snorkel at your favorite reef site; jamming sweaty, salty, dirty clothes back into your suitcase; and tearful goodbyes to friends and colleagues that have shared every minute of your experience over the last four months…this is what I remember from my last days on South Caicos at The School for Field Studies Center for Marine Resource Management in the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI). A semester with SFS creates so many professional and personal firsts, and for me, it laid the groundwork for my career in coral reef and marine resource management. One thing I have repeatedly encountered on my journey is that, even in the furthest corners of the world, I find myself in the company of other SFS alumni – and they’re all as ambitious, clever, and successful as ever.
After completing my semester in the TCI, I returned to the University of Michigan and began the rigorous process of writing my undergraduate thesis, inspired by management issues I studied during my time at SFS. Who did I find crunching her data next to me in the Michigan library but Sarah Mussoline TCI Fall ’06, who had also recently completed her semester on South Caicos. We immediately bonded over tales of eagle rays, hikes over salt flats, and how much we both loved the TCI. We both found ourselves unable to shake the need for the adventure and time in the ocean that our experience at SFS had instilled in us. So, in 2008, we accepted positions together as field technicians for the Hawaii Hawksbill Turtle Recovery Project, based out of Volcanoes National Park on the island of Hawaii. Our SFS connection made it possible for us to work together successfully in the field. Our time at SFS lessened our hesitation and fear of entering into unfamiliar field conditions. We felt comfortable around each other and became effective and inseparable field companions.
I found that I continued to run into SFS alumni as I continued my professional career. After moving to Oahu a few months later, I reunited with my TCI colleague Tricia Hester TCI Spring ’07 while she was pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Hawaii. She became my SCUBA guru and I followed her bubble trail in awe as she led me boldly through caves, trenches, and shipwrecks. In 2012, I returned to the hawksbill turtle field sites on a backpacking trip, and I was welcomed by Kelly Peebles TCI Spring ’07, with whom I had also studied. She is now co-managing the turtle recovery project and has mastered living in the back country. We reminisced about days spent in our wetsuits, which never got a chance to dry!
Recently, after being selected for the 2013 NOAA Coral Reef Management Fellowship, I traveled to Washington, DC to meet the six other fellows who will be working in different jurisdictions on coral reef conservation projects. During our introductions I met Britta Baechler, who is working in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands during her fellowship. I was excited to find out that she attended SFS TCI a semester after me! We were surprised to have encountered each other, and yet when I thought back to my previous reunions, I felt even more validated in my impressions of SFS alumni. The end of our semesters at SFS was just the beginning of professional careers, fueled by the enthusiasm, passion, confidence, and skills that were first cultivated at SFS.
For any prospective students reading this: If you attend a semester at SFS, you will be joining this tight-knit community of alumni who are continuously doing amazing things. I have found it to be a community that is endlessly driven, successful and inspiring. When we find each other, we don’t just swap tales from “Big South,” we also enjoy a mutual understanding and appreciation for the experience of attending a semester at SFS. In my experience, this can also lead to professional collaboration and networking in our shared field of marine resource management.
This is a community that I am proud to be a part of. I encourage all alumni to wear their SFS badge with honor. You can be sure that where there are dynamic and challenging marine resource issues, there will be SFS alumni ready to dive in.