Amaroq Weiss and Erin Hunt of the California Wolf Center say it’s possible to volunteer your way to the job of your dreams.
Let’s start with some specific examples of people who have begun as volunteers at the California Wolf Center and then gone on to their dream jobs.
AMAROQ: Well, I’ll take the easy one first – me. I started as a volunteer with the Center in 1997, which led to a temporary paid position with a national wildlife conservation organization, which led to a permanent paid position with them as their western regional director for species conservation, working on conservation of wolves, grizzly bears and other carnivores. After eight years in that position, I went out on my own as an independent consultant for wolf advocacy groups, and now am working for the Center as paid staff on Northern California wolf issues.
Another volunteer who started at the Center not too long after I did was a student at USD who had taken courses from one of our board members and learned about the Wolf Center that way. After one to two years volunteering at the Center, she obtained a position as a coordinator for a national wildlife conservation organization in their Washington, D.C., headquarters.
ERIN: I started out as a volunteer with the California Wolf Center in 2006. I was a biology student looking for hands-on experience working with wildlife and conservation projects, and the California Wolf Center gave me my first opportunity to be involved with an international endangered species recovery effort. My volunteer experience turned into part-time employment and then full-time employment, and I’ve gradually taken on more responsibilities and new roles within the organization.
Both our internship program and our volunteer program have led to paid employment for many people. Some have gone on to do field work with wolves and other species. Some have gone on to work with zoos and other wildlife centers. And still more have gone on to work with other nonprofit organizations focused on education and public outreach. The skills these people learned at the California Wolf Center prepared them to take on a range of roles in various fields.
Can you give me an idea of what these people did as volunteers, and the average length of time they remained volunteers before they found paying jobs in the field?
ERIN:Volunteers are involved in all aspects of the day-to-day operation of the California Wolf Center. They help with animal care, outreach education, facility maintenance and grounds keeping, administrative tasks, fundraising and many other things that are crucial to accomplishing our education and conservation work.
Some volunteers come to work at the Center for a short time to obtain specific training and experience, while others have devoted years and even decades to our organization. The minimum time commitment to volunteer is one day per month. Most volunteers commit to two to four days per month. Volunteers who wish to gain specific experience for their academic and professional development often devote more hours than average (sometimes as much as a few days a week) to maximize the experience they can gain through our organization.
You must have had hundreds of volunteers over the years who did not wind up with work in a similar field. What made these volunteers special?
ERIN: The volunteers we’ve had who have gone on to paid employment in related fields have either started out with the goal of paid employment in mind or have settled on that goal after being exposed to experiences at the California Wolf Center. Once they decide on that goal (whether before starting volunteer work or during the course of volunteering), they work hard to achieve it. They put in more hours, they ask to be trained on specific things, and they seek out additional opportunities to learn more, develop their skills and challenge themselves.
Working with wildlife is not generally a glamorous or high-paying profession, and it’s a difficult profession to get into. So the people who go into this field do so because they are passionate about conservation and public outreach, and they are willing to put in a lot of hard work to get where they want to be. All of our volunteers help our cause, but those who want paid employment in this field have to be willing to devote their entire lives to it and must be willing to put in time and hard work to achieve their goals.
And did these people have experience or degrees in the same field before they came to you?
ERIN: California Wolf Center volunteers come to the organization with a wide variety of backgrounds. While some have a degree in biology or a related field, most do not. Most do not have previous experience working with wildlife either. We offer a wide array of training that gives people experience in public outreach education, animal care, non-profit administration, facility maintenance and grounds keeping, and many other skill areas.
To gain paid employment working with wildlife or working in public education, a bachelor’s degree is typically a minimum requirement, and a master’s and/or Ph.D. are often needed as well. So volunteers who want to gain paid employment in related fields should be prepared to seek these degrees if they do not already have them. However, previous experience or degrees are not necessary to volunteer with our organization, and many people have started out gaining volunteer experience while they obtain their degrees and work toward their broader career goals.
When a volunteer first offers their time to you, do you get a sense of whether they’ll be one of those driven toward a job in the field? If so, what gave you that sense?
ERIN: Sometimes, but not always. Some volunteers come to us with clear career goals in mind, and they wish to gain specific experience and skills by volunteering with our organization. These people typically have a plan in advance, and they express their needs and expectations up front so that we can ensure that they get the training they need and want. Others may not know what they ultimately want to do for employment, but they discover a passion for working with wildlife through their volunteer work and then create a plan for getting the experience and education they will need to achieve that goal. Still others may be employed in an unrelated field but get exposed to experiences and opportunities through the California Wolf Center that cause them to seek a career change and work toward employment in a field related to wildlife, conservation, and public education.
What kind of advice would you give to someone who has zero experience or degrees in the field they’re hoping to break into? Where should that person begin?
ERIN: Volunteering can be a great way to learn new skills and to explore different options for possible future employment. It gives you experience with different fields and different work environments, so you can really decide what you like the best and where your strengths lie. Many fields will require a bachelor’s degree, and some may require graduate degrees. Volunteering will give you opportunities to meet people in your desired field and to seek advice about what experience, training, and education you need to get a job in that field. Volunteering also offers great networking opportunities. Whatever your chosen field, volunteering can give you a chance to learn more about the field and what you need to do to get into it.
Alright, and how about specifically for your organization? Any particular kind of person you think would be most suited to the work?
ERIN: Because California Wolf Center volunteers have the opportunity to help with a variety of tasks, there’s really something for everyone. Some volunteer work is very physically demanding, but there are also a lot of opportunities to help out in the office, to help with educational tours and to help with fundraising and outreach efforts. We’re truly grateful to all of our volunteers, regardless of their reasons for volunteering and regardless of what previous experience they bring to the table. To learn more about volunteer opportunities, please email [email protected], call 760-765-0030 or visit us on the web at www.californiawolfcenter.org.