Monday, May 16, 2016

Ode to a Master's Degree

This past Friday, I graduated with my Master of Science in Recreation, concentration in Outdoor and Environmental Education, from SUNY Cortland.

I have so much I could say about my experience in this program, and yet it's so difficult to put into words how much it has truly meant to me. Perhaps some background is the place to start...

When I started my undergrad in the fall of 2011, I was a candidate for a Bachelor of Arts in Music - bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and overjoyed to launch into a career of arts management, aiming to get a mix of varied skills from a program that was much more tailored toward performers than what I hoped to accomplish. The three years I spent busting out my bachelor's were incredibly painful, stressful, and mentally exhausting. I worked hard all. the. time, over-scheduling myself, thinking that that was the way to be successful in life, and was frankly quite miserable with my day-to-day. I didn't feel like a "fit" in my program or the overarching school community, but found ways to feel a "fit" by starting a branch of Campus Girl Scouts at my school, throwing myself into my job in Events Management that I LOVED, and giving tours around campus, showing students what was so special at my school, that I was somehow myself missing.

The summer between my second and senior years, by happy accident, I was the special events intern at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, and absolutely loved each and every second of it. I spent the summer helping with the planning, prep and execution of zoo events for families to participate in. This, coupled with my experience the previous year with the Campus Girl Scouts, left me realizing that however I was going to pursue arts management, I wanted it to include impacting the lives of children (perhaps through education outreach departments became my thinking).

Cue the closing of my childhood Girl Scout camp, Yaiewano during the fall of my senior year... Here's a brief excerpt from my blog post I wrote in memorium of my time at Girl Scout camp:

"I realized Yaiewano was so important to me because I regarded it as the last piece of that person I was still in existence. So much of my light has succumb to the unfortunate real world that takes itself too seriously, the world of school, work, money. I put blinders on myself for success, nothing less. I get up, go to class and work, do homework, maybe watch some television if I decide to give myself a break, and sleep on a daily basis. In this world, my personality that Yaiewano built in me has not only not been nurtured, it has been downright ignored and squashed. It has reverted to some different personality - someone who's way too mature and clinical. And leaving there meant that I could never get that old girl back. That was why leaving forever felt so hard, so life-altering, so devastating, so crushing.

In hard times, I always find myself returning to the resilience and good spirits instilled in me by Girl Scouting. Though it's still devastating, Yaiewano closing is nothing short of a significant and positive turning point in my life, and I believe it was clearly fated to be brought to me at this point in my life. Yaiewano helped me grow through the formative years of my life, and now it has come back into my life now to help me grow again. 


I said Yaiewano has come back into my life in this way to help me, once again, to grow, and I have never had more faith in a statement. Yaiewano has given me so much to be grateful for over the years, and I know in several years I will look back on this time now and these formative years of beginning adulthood and see just how much more it's given me."

After attending Yaiewano's closing ceremony, I was so fortunate to have my fiance Daniel nudge me into thinking about "Recreation" as a Master's degree path, versus arts management.

At first, this was terrifying to me to stray from the path I had been setting for myself, but at its core, it initially had similar bones to the topics of arts management - this helped me to process it to the point where I then became accepting of it, and started to realize what was truly important to me, in conjunction with all of the recent experiences I had been having - the zoo, Campus Girl Scouts, my events job, Yaiewano... I took what felt like a HUGE leap of faith in myself, and applied for the best recreation program in the state, SUNY Cortland. The program sounded amazing, and I decided that if it worked out, it was meant to be - if not, oh well, I'd figure it out from there. And I ended up being accepted!

When I look back at that very last paragraph I wrote in my blog post about Yaiewano, it honestly brings tears to my eyes. I try my hardest to live my life by the slogan of "Everything happens for a reason," and blindly hoped that the closing of Yaiewano had some sense of purpose in my life, so I decided after that that I would try to embrace whatever that was. My master's program became just that.

What this program has really, truly allowed me to do is trust myself. During my undergrad, I was so incredibly paranoid about picking a "non-traditional" field of work (i.e. not something like business, accounting, med school, etc that eventually guarantees you a job in this world) that I attempted to work myself to the bone to prove to myself and everyone else that I could be successful at whatever I wanted to be. When I took this leap of faith to pursue my recreation master's, I decided to switch into the career path of working in a person-centered service field, ideally at summer camp, and while I was ready to say goodbye to all the things about my undergrad that made me unhappy, looking back, I was still so uncertain and nervous.

At the end of my first year of my program, I was fortunate enough to land the job I have now working with my home Girl Scout council as an Outdoor Program Manager. Landing a full-time job in my desired field of Outdoor Education at just 21 years old was such a game changer for my confidence. And then, what followed that fall when school picked up again was, quite literally, the most long-withstanding stress I have experienced to date. My job involves a lot of weekends and weird evening hours interacting with our girls and volunteers (which I love!), coupled with late evenings in class and required weekend trips, and having to take 4 classes and my comprehensive exams my final semester to graduate on time... What resulted was eating take-out a lot, developing an unhealthy addiction to coffee (that I now need to break), and staying up until midnight and getting up at 6AM too frequently to do homework around my work schedule, keep our apartment from becoming a cesspool and still find time for "me" things like fitting in a workout... and I'm a person who loves my sleep, so that part certainly wasn't fun!

And it was not easy either. Earlier last week, I had a breakdown out of sheer pride and defeat at the same time about how truly exhausting my last year in my master's has been. Yet, I have been so fulfilled. This year has taught me how strong my work ethic truly is, and how much I have found what I'm meant to be doing.

For all those long days and nights, that became weeks and months, I wouldn't change my time spent leading programs at camp, guiding hikes, and instructing on environmental ed topics for Girl Scouts, spending weekends and evenings at camp, trainings and volunteer meetings, working hard to hit my program goals, and striving to do my best each and every day to change the idea that many leaders have across the country that Girl Scout council employees are flighty, unhelpful and don't know how to do their job because my council and I are not that! I wouldn't change my time spent learning about ecology, the history of the relationship between man and the wilderness, how to manage outdoor recreation resources, going on my NOLS course, spending weekends hiking and learning to rock climb, learning about how to facilitate environmental education lessons, the stages of group development and different leadership styles, organizational behavior, the American Camp Association accreditation standards process, the musings of Thoreau, Muir, and Leopold, and so, so much more.

Most importantly, for all those long days and nights, that became weeks and months, I wouldn't change who I have allowed myself to become (or rather, to get back in touch with). Being exposed to so many likeminded people who are also driven and passionate helped me to realize that success is what you make it. I am fortunate enough to have many talents and skills I consider myself to be good at, but all of that means nothing if I'm not doing what I truly love - being in my greatest "happy place," outdoors with children and getting to expose them to all of the wonders this world holds for them.

I still remember my first memory of pulling into Yaiewano as a spry young Girl Scout. I was in the back seat of the car as we rounded the curve of the road and trees, bringing us down the hill, and the whole camp emerged before my eager eyes. As we traveled slowly down the gravel drive, I remember seeing two older girls out the side window, walking up the road wearing their backpacks with bandanas wrapped around their heads, hair in ponytails. They looked so happy - happy to be at camp, out in the sunshine, happy to be each other's company, just happy. I remember thinking, I want to be just like them when I get older.

Camp ended up changing my life. It made me who I am. I spent 8 summers at camp as a camper, 1 as a Counselor in Training, and so far 3 as a staff member. All I can hope for my career is to have the children who come to my camp appreciate their experience at camp so much that they, too, remember their first memory pulling in on their first day, and my Master's degree has truly put me on the path for this to happen - and more importantly, allowed me to realize that I have all the tools in my toolbox to do just that.

Yaiewano means "She who watches over us," and I truly believe whoever "she" is, she has watched over me.

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