Ay te Voy: Navigating a career in conservation

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Corina Godoy felt she had a calling to work in conservation. Along the way, she didn’t see many people who looked like her. Undeterred and embracing her passion, she forged ahead, knowing that she would have to clear her own path.

Corvallis, OR (2018): My third internship but the first time I worked independently. It was the first time I cried because of a steep learning curve, and the first time I heard a compliment behind my back. I learned in the end, kept the compliment, and made new friends.

By Corina Godoy, MDLT Lead Nursery Production Assistant

I had an idealized image of what it meant to begin my life as an adult. The choices I could make, the people I would meet, and the places I would visit. No movie or sitcom starts in a community college, but that is where I began the foundation of the career I have now.

In many ways this decision was made for me. I had a crippling fear of putting myself or my parents in debt. They worked hard for what they had, and I did not want my search for a higher education to cost them in more ways than one. Community college allowed me to complete my general education requirements for free and allowed me to figure out what I absolutely did not want to major in. I threw myself into my coursework, desperately trying to be as transfer friendly as possible. My desperation grew as I completed my transfer requirements. Graduation was around the corner, but I still had no idea what I wanted to major in or what to look for in a college.

Then things fell into place, one by one.

California City, CA (2020): I started work as a naturalist at the beginning of the pandemic. Lockdowns began as I was in the middle of the desert with no sign of human life for miles. It was both eerie and comforting. Unfortunately, desert creatures don’t understand the concept of social distancing.

I had an opportunity to volunteer with a scientist who worked on the protection of desert tortoises (Gopherus agassizii) by monitoring their most prominent predator, the raven (Corvus corax). The volunteers would post around the perimeter of a known raven roosting site and monitor the ravens entering and exiting the area. When the sun began to set, birds would pour in from all sides reaching a total of 5,000+ ravens in one concentrated area. Participating in this data collection made me feel useful. Getting good grades was a result or a relief, but this did not feel like that. This felt right. I continued to volunteer, and my attendance resulted in a job offer through a recommendation. I felt seen, I felt proud, and I accepted the job.

I started working as a field technician that spring and accepted an internship with a botanic garden later that year. There was so much to learn and so many new experiences to have. I started to form an idea of what I wanted to do after community college and working for the restoration department for the botanic garden reassured me that I was making the right decision.

It was being outside, working with plants, seeing a drastic before and after in the landscape, fighting heat stroke with slurpees with my teammates, and just feeling important. It was feeling that I could try my hardest and push my limits and it would matter. That the intent of my actions, even when I fell short, mattered. I knew I wanted to work with plants in any capacity, but I really liked how plants had everything coded in them in how to do their job and make the landscape heal. This helped me choose my major and intended university. I applied to one school, and I started my first semester the following spring.

East Bethel, MN (2019): After I graduated college, I went to the Midwest for seasonal work. There was beauty and pain like I had never experienced. This is an eight-spotted forester moth (Alypia octomaculata). I found this gorgeous specimen while I was experiencing being eaten alive by mosquitoes.

What followed was a realization: I was in a white male dominated space. I would look around in my classes and my following internships and gain awareness of the space I occupied. In a way, it was isolating, but science itself can be isolating. Along the way, I always found someone I could connect with and feel a bit more at ease with, someone who usually looked a little more like me. While I appreciate and treasure these connections, I don’t believe that they are necessary to be successful. My journey was fueled by pure determination to get to a better place. I didn’t know if I was going about it the best way, but I charged forward. When I started my career, I didn’t have time to stop and rifle through the heroes of botany to pick someone to emulate. I just wanted to chase this feeling of happiness. I wanted to be good at something.

Of course, it helps to have your community with you, but I am impatient, and I found something that I am passionate about, and I had no intention of waiting for a warm welcome or blessing. I do not need someone who looks like me or speaks my language to pave the way, I am on my way, and they need to make room.

Joshua Tree, CA (2021): It seems to me that the most special connections are when you can communicate without the use of words. When a plant springs back to life after I cheer it on, it makes me feel like a plant whisperer. When wildlife gets close and intentionally seek me out, I feel like I am “the one”. The one of what, I do not know but I want to form a union with them to keep pests out of our nursery.

In many ways, I feel lucky and some of my experiences are unique. I have worked across the country with botanic gardens, science reserves, a government agency, and a non-profit. It is only now that I allow myself to feel proud of what I have accomplished.

With my work with Mojave Desert Land Trust, I feel appreciated every day by the plants and my supervisors. I love that I can use what I learned from previous experiences and learn more as the days go by. This job always keeps me on my toes, and I love that. I love the freedom to experiment or to come up with a plan of attack when a problem arises. This is in many ways a sum of all the experiences that came before it and I feel very lucky and proud to work for MDLT.

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