“Not all who wander are lost,” – J.R.R. Tolkien.

This quote resonates with the value and vision driven—albeit less conventional—journey I have taken that has led me to a Ph.D. in Integrative Conservation and Anthropology and my current position as a Georgia Sea Grant Knauss Fellow with NOAA’s National Sea Grant Office.

My professional journey began when I entered college planning to study marine biology due to my affinity for the ocean and aquatic organisms. However, the interdisciplinary scientist and artist inside of me led me down a less traditional career path which eventually returned to the ocean. I was fortunate my mentors supported my vision of doing creative environmental work in Latin America. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree that blended environmental science, communications and Spanish, I pursued that vision as an environmental educator with the U.S. Peace Corps in Paraguay. Over two years, I partnered with the government, communities, nonprofits and schools to promote environmental stewardship while addressing linked socioeconomic needs.

Wishing to strengthen my multimedia communication skills after the Peace Corps, I submitted a successful photography project proposal to an environmental nonprofit, Guyra Paraguay, that I had worked with as a volunteer. Over the next three years, we published bilingual photography books on the Atlantic Forest and Paraguay’s portion of Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland.

In between working abroad, I returned to my home state, Alabama, to work as an environmental scientist. During this time, crisis struck, and I volunteered to travel south and help colleagues tackle the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The spill devastated livelihoods and fisheries along the Gulf Coast and underscored our need for holistic domestic policies responsive to the dynamic links between energy, food security, resilient economies and healthy marine environments.

Wishing to better understand the complex socioenvironmental challenges I was grappling with at home and abroad, I enrolled in the Integrative Conservation and Anthropology Ph.D. program at the University of Georgia. With the support of a U.S. Fulbright grant, I conducted fisheries research in a marine protected area of Brazil in collaboration with local communities, my host university and the federal agency overseeing the reserve, ICMBio. During the last part of my Ph.D. program, I applied to the Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship with the aim of “bringing home” experiences and skills I gained abroad to lead domestic efforts that inclusively address marine resource conservation challenges.

The Knauss Fellowship has been a formative experience that has undoubtedly contributed to my professional goals and development. As a partnership specialist with the National Sea Grant Office, I support and strengthen the Sea Grant’s partnership work, looking at connections both internally within NOAA and the Sea Grant network and externally with other agencies and sectors. I am continually learning new skills while finding opportunities to strengthen and contribute existing ones. For example, I’ve applied my cross-cultural and multi-linguistic skills to provide translation support to trilateral marine protected area meetings and facilitate partnership discussions with Spanish-speaking stakeholders. My environmental communications skills are helping me to codevelop and launch a Knauss newsletter this fall. Whether it be through organizing listening sessions, drafting feedback forms or carrying out informal interviews, my social science training comes in handy.

One of the most important things my previous experiences have instilled in me is a deep sense of empathy and ability to connect with people from all walks of life, cultures and backgrounds, whether that be a fisherwoman, diplomat, natural scientist, artist, policymaker, community leader or resource manager. Having these interpersonal and diplomacy skills helps me to facilitate collaborative discussions and build relationships with diverse stakeholders conducive to partnership work.

Had I taken a more linear professional trajectory, I don’t know that I would have the breadth of skills or richness in perspective I have today. This is all to say, particularly for those contemplating career paths or applying to the Knauss Fellowship: it’s okay to have a less conventional journey that reflects your unique vision, values and circumstance. In sum, it’s okay “to wander.” Indeed, being open to the journey is where living truly happens.