Jane Clark’s experience as a member of SCA’s Excelsior Conservation Corps provided valuable leadership skills, the opportunity to work on a team, and how to balance heavy workloads. 

How I Found It and Why I Joined

I joined the Excelsior Conservation Corps a year after graduating from college with my Bachelors. I had watched a number of my classmates make the transition from college student to working adult, but I struggled to do so. I imagine this is a familiar feeling for a lot of young 20-somethings. It was especially frustrating because I had always been an exceptionally capable person by all standards. But I had let my self-doubt keep me from pursuing, not only a more lucrative career, but one that really interested me.
When I was in college, I shied away from STEM courses that I worried would be too much for me. It’s funny – I had been good at math and science in high school. But it always seemed like there were people who were better. Besides, as a young woman, it seemed like people saw art and writing as a more viable option for me than math and science. So when I got to college, I had convinced myself that higher level STEM courses were not in the cards.
One of my majors was Environmental Studies: I focused on the political and sociological aspects of environmental problems. I TRIED to figure out how to turn it into a career. Should I pursue work on environmental policy, community outreach, or urban planning? Nothing seemed to really fit. Nonetheless, in the process of exploring and learning, I participated in a number of internships that showed me how multifaceted sustainability work was. I heard from lawyers, business owners, policy makers, and activists. But in the end, it was always the on-the-ground technical work that fascinated me. It was only after I graduated that I realized that I didn’t want to pursue sustainability from a policy standpoint. Only then did I admit to myself that I had let my self-doubt get in the way. I should have pursued a STEM education. But it was too late now, and I had to work with what I had.
I moved with my boyfriend (now fiance) to Syracuse: he had found work there, and it seemed like there would be more opportunities for me as well. I looked for entry-level jobs in conservation, resource monitoring, you name it – but all the paying jobs required technical skills that I just didn’t have. Lucky for me, I have an amazing sister that pointed me to USAjobs.gov, which somehow led me to the SCA. When I found out about ECC I couldn’t believe my luck.

Why I Chose The Infrastructure Crew and What I Got Out of It

As I wrapped up my application, I very nervously selected the Infrastructure and Sustainability crew as my first choice placement. As someone interested in engineering and the built environment, its mission seemed the most compelling. But as someone who couldn’t remember what a Phillip’s head screwdriver was, it seemed like it was the most out of my wheelhouse. “Stop letting your fear of failure keep you from the work you’re actually interested in,” I scolded myself. “Just go for it! You have to take your first step somewhere.”
Fortunately, my interview went well, and the head of the I&S crew at the time, Craig, was very reassuring. “Everything you’re worried about – we can teach you.” The most important thing was a willingness to learn and the ability to work as a team. The team would do everything together: prepping equipment, setting up camp, cooking meals, project planning, chainsawing, carpentry, you name it. For ten days at a time, you would rely on your team for everything and they would rely on you. If I could handle that, then the job was mine.
The rest is history. We did work as far south as Staten Island, camping next to the historic Fort Wadsworth, built in the early 1800s. Our last hitch was as far north as the Thousand Islands, right on the border with Canada. My time with ECC was an extraordinary chance to learn hands-on skills, use them for the public good, and collaborate closely with professionals as well as other passionate young adults. We worked on projects of both ecological and historical significance: solar panel installation, hazard tree and invasive species removal, carpentry, mortar and stone work, trail maintenance and design, you name it. Because all members had opportunities to manage projects, my six months with ECC also helped me further develop my team work, leadership ability – and my self-confidence. If I could learn to fell 50-foot ash trees with a chainsaw and reconstruct historic CCC buildings, I could do anything. Most importantly, I could finally start shaking off the self-doubt that held me back and take a hard look at my goals. With this new clarity, I worked with my program director to arrange an informational interview with the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation. With that information, everything fell into place. I wanted to become an environmental engineer. Not only that – I knew I could.

What I Do Now

As I write this, I am in my second semester and thriving. So many of my fellow students are in the same boat – returning to school with newfound motivation – and it has been such a comfort. Having been in the workforce (through ECC and my current part-time job), I have better structure and discipline, which makes my heavy workload both manageable and rewarding. In a way, I am glad of the journey that brought me here. I know who I am and how to keep moving through life’s obstacles. The future is a source of excitement, and I look forward to what it brings.
So what did I really take away from my time with ECC? Often, fear of failure is so much worse than failure itself. There are a lot of good people in the world who want to help you learn: you just have to go out and find them. Always carry 2L of water and use plenty of sunscreen. And most importantly, Dinosaur Eggs brown sugar oatmeal is a great way to start off literally any day. All oatmeal should have hard sugar dinosaurs that dissolve from little sugar eggs.