Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge

Upon termination of the NBII program, I was out of work, and beginning to feel out of luck.

I’d applied for two positions with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation – although I’d backed out of consideration for one as taking that post would preclude me from pursuing a higher-paying post in the same agency.

I won’t get in to the unemployment division’s practices concerning referrals.  However, the market was saturated. I’d put all my chips in one pile hoping the NBII wouldn’t get axed, but it did.  And no one was hiring former Web content managers with a Bachelor’s in biology, at least not in Knoxville, my home since 2002.

Struggling to find work, I knew I needed to make myself more competitive.  So, while continuing to look for work, I enrolled in night classes at the University of Tennessee’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.  I hoped I could work my way through one course at a time as a non-degree seeking student, then eventually transfer my credits towards a Masters Degree.

My first course as a graduate student was Dr. Matthew Gray’s “Amphibian Ecology and Conservation.”  Taking the class would serve two purposes: I’d gain 3 hours of graduate credit, and I’d have 6 credits in organismal biology (I’d taken comparative invertebrate biology as an undergrad). I’d noticed many job postings required a minimum of six hours of credit – so picking up this course would help me.  I also knew Dr. Gray from volunteering with Southeast Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation.  He had a lab, and I was snooping around for funding – with good reason.  That single graduate level course cost $1,600 in tuition and fees – another reason to possibly work for TDEC – a state employee tuition reduction.

My approach was two-pronged.  If I couldn’t find work or compete for available jobs based on experience, I’d volunteer with wildlife jobs to gain experience.  I already volunteered at the Knoxville Zoo.  I’d heard about the student conservation association, and thought that volunteering for the SCA would allow me to gain “free” training in wildlife and conservation.  So I applied to posts all over the country – Oregon, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida.

I found even landing volunteer work was competitive. My SCA advisor forwarded my application to several sites – and I interviewed for one nearby in Asheville.  The work sounded amazing – botany field work in two National Park units in Tennessee, and one in North Carolina, as part of the Appalachian Highlands Inventory and Monitoring Network.  I’d worked with databases, herbariums, and geographic information systems as part of my work with the NBII, but hadn’t taken any botany courses.  I also hadn’t taken any formal GIS courses.  In the end I was competitive, but was still beaten out.

I needed a new strategy.  I noticed a sea turtle monitoring position for the summer with the Fish and Wildlife Service.  It looked amazing, too.  Since I already loved reptile and amphibian conservation, and worked with endangered turtles and tortoises at the Knoxville zoo, I thought it would be a good fit. But there was a catch.  It was open to “local candidates only.”

But if anything, I’m tenacious.  I wrote to my SCA advisor, Gary Rowe, and posed a question.

I have a friend who lives in St. Croix, Virgin Islands. Assuming I could work out some kind of living arrangement with her, would I be able to apply for a “Biological Intern (Local Candidate Only)” position, PO-00064339  Thanks, Tanner

Gary wrote back.  If I were willing to become a resident of the Virgin Islands on my own dime, then yes, I could apply.

So in the early days of 2012, fresh off of being rejected by the Appalachian Highlands Inventory and Monitoring Network, I hatched a scheme.  I looked for a place in Frederiksted on the West end of St. Croix.  I found a place on Rainbow Beach – which, due to incorrect spatial data courtesy of Google, I thought was connected to the Sandy Point NWR by a road – veteran’s boulevard (It’s not). However, it was the closest place on craigslist advertised.  In fact, as I recall it was the *only* place advertised.  You have to remember – summertime is the off-season.

It’s on Craigslist today – “Oceanview” <>. From the photos, you can see why I was interested.  And, the owner, Michele Stone, is a dive instructor and fan of Sandy Point.  So, after making and inquiry and being disappointed about the initial price – “how long is long term?” – there was a price break for predictable rents.  Three months didn’t cut it, but Michelle made me a deal after learning that I was volunteering with the turtles.  If I could get the position, then I could have a place to live.

I wrote back to my SCA advisor that I’d found a place and added:

My opinion is the practical experience is worth the cost of the airfare to St. Croix and housing.  If there’s a shortage of “resident” applicants I’d like to be considered.

I was keeping my options open – going over my e-mails I noticed I added a comment that I’d added some other sea turtle internships, and one related to GIS in my home state.
Gary was a great advocate for me and forwarded my name as a “local candidate.” The SCA suggests you contact the host site – so I did.  I e-mailed, and I called.  I left a message.  The fact is, the staff at Sandy Point pulls double duty as law enforcement officers AND wildlife biologist – so you can see why they were interested in student conservation volunteers.
I sent a message to Claudia Lombard, Sandy Point Biologist on March 26, 2012:

Hi Claudia, 

I’m excited to see my SCA application was forwarded for your consideration at Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge.

As you look over my application, I wanted to point out that while I’m a graduate student at the University of Tennessee, I do have local housing lined up in Frederiksted near Dorsch Beach should you find my skills and interests best meet your needs.

Hopefully it’s evident from my volunteer work related to herpetofauna, but I want to highlight my strong interest in working with wildlife, habitat restoration, and curbing invasive species.

I’ve applied to several wildlife technician jobs, but found that despite my undergraduate degree in ecology and professional experience working on a team as a biodiversity scientist, practical experience with wildlife is critical for my resume to even be forwarded to federal agencies. My personal commitment to putting my skills to use to benefit wildlife will hopefully set me apart from other applicants. 

I’d appreciate the opportunity to speak with you to answer any questions you may have about my application, work ethic, and physical aptitude. 

Thank you,

Tanner Jessel

There was nothing else to do but wait and watch as positions I’d applied for were filled. I studied for my night class, I volunteered on local conservation opportunities with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (relocation of Tiger Salamander larvae in Sevier County by the way – amazing), and I looked for local jobs. Weeks passed.
On April 18, I got a message from the SCA. I’d been selected. My starting date would be May 7, the Monday after my final exam for my evening course. I booked a flight to St. Croix on May 5, a Saturday, so I could get settled in. Still, my luck seemed too good to be true – in fact I wrote to Claudia:
This may seem an overly worrisome thought, but I know the SCA Web site recently underwent a revision and they’ve had some mistakes with their system – so before I ask you where I should report for duty on Monday, I should probably confirm that you are actually expecting me as an intern this summer?
Claudia wrote back:
Stop worrying. . . .you’re in and you’re on!
It turns out, calling was a difference maker.  The four students who called were selected – it made knowing who really wanted the volunteer experience easier for Claudia.
Looking for information about Sandy Point and the SCA – I came across this post on the SCA’s web site: “Top Ten Awesome Internships for 2012.”

4. Do you live in the Virgin Islands? And are you interested in working with sea turtles? Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge is looking for some local conservationists to work as Outreach/Education and Biological Interns. You will work on nighttime sea turtle monitoring, and nighttime youth and community education programs to learn about nesting sea turtles. You might also conduct hourly foot patrols of the 4.6 km refuge beach area and learn about nest management.

Don’t live in the Virgin Islands? We don’t either. But you can search for local internships near you and make a difference in your community this year!

The anwer for me was no, no I did not live in the Virgin Islands.  But I did for the summer. I take to heart the idea that we make our own destiny.  Perhaps it’s tenacity, perhaps it’s the American way. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps.  Short of giving up, I did everything I could – applied, called, e-mailed.

The Great Recession was tough. I was insulated in a contract position, and Knoxville itself fared well, but I was feeling it.  People are still feeling it. Not everyone can fly off to the Virgin Islands for career training. But it was the distance I was willing to go to get, essentially, free job training – while also volunteering to conserve reptiles.

As can be expected, the experience was more rewarding than I could imagine.  Stars seen from a midnight beach in the Caribbean Sea are hard to forget  – on switfly shifting sands carried by persistent waves, at the point of a narrow volcanic outcropping, the “island earth” is best experienced on the precipice to the deep that is Sandy Point. Pair this with prehistoric creatures lumbering up from the ocean depths to carry out a ritual passed down from before the dawn of the dinosaurs; near collisions with nervous hawksbills; “dawn turtles” and lost turtles, hatchlings and night herons; the Mule, ground lizards, jack spaniards, mongeese, and many more stories from Sandy Point and beyond that marinate in memory, asking to be written down.

Leatherback Sea Turtle returns to Caribbean sea at Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge.

Photo taken with permission of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during course of monitoring activities. Flash was not used.


About Tanner Jessel

I am a recent M.S. in Information Science graduate from the University of Tennessee School of Information Science. I was formerly a graduate research assistant funded by DataONE (Data Observation Network for Earth). Prior, I worked for four years as a content lead and biodiversity scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Biodiversity Informatics Program. Building on my work experience in biodiversity and environmental informatics, my work with DataONE focused on exploring the nature of scientific collaborations necessary for scientific inquiry. I also conducted research concerning user experience and usability, and assisted in development of member nodes with an emphasis on spatial data and infrastructure. I assisted with research designed to understand sociocultural issues within collaborative research communities. Through August 1, 2014, I was based at the Center for Information and Communication Studies at the University of Tennessee School of Information Science in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Posted on July 21, 2014, in Personal Life. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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