Ashlee Kopchak ZANESVILLE, Ohio- As we say goodbye, or good riddance to 2020, I cannot help but feel a little blessed for 2020. This past year has brought me a lot of pain, but it has also brought me a lot of joy and to top it off it brought me this new position. I have awaited a career where I felt like I was at home or a place where I knew I was appreciated and encouraged to have ideas and then figure out how to implement them.
It has always been a passion of mine to work in agriculture and so I pursued a degree in it. It wasn’t until I got to college and did an internship that I fell in love with something else, education. I knew I wanted to work with animals at a young age and originally, I wanted to be a veterinarian because that’s what every kid says when they want to work with animals. I quickly changed my mind when I learned veterinarians have one of the hardest jobs, in my opinion of course. It was the tragedy and death that came along with the job that swayed me in another direction. I always had a love for zoos and conservation so when I landed my first internship at the Houston Zoo I was beyond overjoyed. Not only did I get to learn about local conservation practices, but I also got to learn about GLOBAL conservation practices, which was eye opening. To be cliché and say, “that internship changed my life” would be an understatement. It did just that. I was able to work directly with the education department and the educational coordinators became my mentors. That being said, the interns were able to attend some of the informal education they did around the zoo, including camp, and this was where that “aha” moment kicked in. It combined everything I loved into one position, the freedom to teach lessons informally, engage with students, teach about the things I had learned and the best part—teach kids how they can make a difference.
Encouraging kids is the best thing an educator can do; we constantly build them up and cheer them on. I look back, and thanks to social media I have teachers from elementary school who are still there rooting me on, and I will forever be thankful for them. After my internship I was determined to choose my own path and I focused on education, conservation, and agriculture. Now, you might think those things do not go together; but the truth is education is in everything you do, no matter what your job is, or who you work for you, are always educating someone.
That is the glorious thing about my job; yes, I have the title of Education Specialist but every person in this office is an education specialist. We can provide the information to anyone and there will be some who will take our expertise and knowledge and implement it and others will move on from it, and that is okay too.
One of my favorite stories to tell was about a student I had in camp a few years back. He was four years old at the time and attended the youngest camp session offered. We talked about basic animal knowledge. I was teaching about nocturnal and diurnal and threw in the tough one that no one ever remembers, crepuscular. Later that day we were walking through the zoo and as we passed the jaguars, he reached up, grabbed my hand and said “Miss Ashlee, that animal is crepuscular”; and he was right. Now, for those of you who do not know what crepuscular means, it is a description of animals who are neither nocturnal or diurnal but are most active during dusk and dawn (twilight) and sleep or nap in between, like most of your large cats. There is nothing more rewarding as an educator when a student not only understands what is being taught but then takes it and applies it as he did. Right then I knew this was the profession I wanted to be in. So, from my point of view, I am thanking 2020 because it very well may be the worst and best year of my life.
2020 may have taken a lot of things from us, but there is one thing no one can ever take from you and that is your knowledge and education. Stay tuned for some of the new programs Soil and Water will be offering in 2021, the year of observation.