For Courtney Lopez, Wittenberg class of 2019, a summer work experience has sparked an entirely new passion and even a change of majors.
A Springfield native, Lopez decided to try her hand working with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) in Indiana last summer.
“I chose to apply for biological technician positions with SCA and started setting up phone interviews with national wildlife refuges around the Midwest region,” Lopez said.
Her persistence in finding a position paid off as she accepted an internship with the Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge in Southwest Indiana. Within days of joining the team, Lopez knew she had discovered her passion.
“Every day at the refuge was a new experience for me,” Lopez said. “We did maintenance for the refuge, including mowing and trimming back trails. We also did species identification of important prairie plants for seed collection using GPS, took control of invasive species like bull thistle, planted tons of trees, looked at possible land to purchase for the refuge and helped with contamination reports on the land. The job also included night-time bat surveys, early-morning breeding bird surveys, water-structure control and water-level monitoring.”
Looking back on the experience, Lopez said her favorite days in Patoka involved actually going out and doing contamination surveys with her supervisor and coworkers, as well as learning about tree, prairie and other plant species that are native to Indiana.
“While in Patoka, I was able to work with other groups to build a tree trail archway and create a brochure for that tree trail with descriptions on how to identify trees. We also constructed mist nets for bats with environmental consultants, did tree sampling and worked side by side with high school students in the Youth Conservation Corps. I learned how to hitch a trailer, mix herbicides, put up signs properly and how the Fish and Wildlife Service works day-to-day to protect wildlife. I plan on applying to more refuges this upcoming summer for another position through the SCA.”
The experience not only changed Lopez, but also prompted her to switch majors since returning to Wittenberg. Instead of majoring in biology, she now plans to pursue environmental science while still completing minors in biology and geology. She also brought back information to help her schedule classes at Wittenberg that will benefit her future environmental internships. Additionally, she was able to use her newly acquired knowledge of conservation plans and general plant identification in such classes as environmental science and freshwater ecology.
Lopez became fascinated by the SCA the previous year after her class peer mentor, Victoria Simek, class of 2017, presented on her SCA experience in Alaska during an environmental science class. Simek’s presentation prompted Lopez to seek out a similar experience.
“She helped me through the application process and was actually one of my references to get into the program,” said Lopez, who is a member of the Gamma Phi Beta sorority and a teaching assistant for an environmental science class at Wittenberg. “Once I was in the SCA I was able to apply for positions that best fit my personality and qualifications. The opportunity from the SCA is a huge boost for a career path with federal government agencies. I learned a lot about how to get into different programs, what type of jobs are out there and how to get myself on a path that I want to explore and succeed in. After getting my bachelor’s degree in environmental science, I plan on going to grad school somewhere out of state and broadening my learning experience. I plan to continue internships throughout grad school to figure out what my true passion is.”
“Courtney is a talented environmental science major,” added Sarah Fortner, associate professor of geology and environmental science. “She is skilled at both field and analytical work and committed to conservation. Her internship with the SCA provided her with a chance to apply skills from class projects in new ways. Also, with her summer experience, Courtney now brings new expertise into her classes. It is inspiring!”
“I'm very blessed to be able to work with such amazing professors in a field that I care about so much,” Lopez added. “Without being at Wittenberg, I wouldn't have had the special opportunity to really get to know my professors on a personal level. They push me to do better, study longer, and really expect a lot out of me in class, which is a big motivator for me. They truly care about how I'm doing in my classes and what I'm doing over the summer to better my chances at making a career for myself. They work hard to figure out what each student wants to do and help them on the right path for success.”
To learn more about her summer work, read her blog at www.patokariverrevealed.weebly.com