Nov 13, 2009
For Wenonah Skye, FVTC’s Natural Resources Technician program provided the hands-on skills and technical knowledge she needed to reinvigorate her career.
Not long ago, Wenonah Skye was at a crossroads. She had a bachelor’s degree in Recreation Resource Management from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and work experience with the U.S. Forest Service on her resume. But over the years, her life took several detours, including a series of unfulfilling jobs. She felt like her professional field, natural resources management, was incomplete.
“I was very capable at that time, but there were holes in my education,” says Skye, now 42. “That’s why I decided to return to school. I needed the hands-on skills that were missing from my background.”
Despite previous work experience and a four-year degree, Skye enrolled in Fox Valley Technical College’s Natural Resources Technician program to help reinvigorate her career.
Digging Up New Opportunities
Skye isn’t alone. Many older students—including people with degrees—regularly enroll at FVTC to enhance skills and find new opportunities for themselves. Students also come from all over. FVTC has the only natural resources associate degree program in Wisconsin.
“After working jobs they don’t like for many years, they wake up one morning and say, ‘Life is too short to keep doing this,’” explains Rick Buser, chair of FVTC’s Natural Resources department.
In fact, one recent student was a retired doctor. He didn’t need the work; he simply wanted to learn more about conservation issues and develop skills for some volunteer projects. Says Buser: “There’s no average student here.”
Bruce Cecka, another Natural Resources instructor, echoes those comments. He recently talked to a prospective student who had already earned a bachelor’s degree. “The gentleman told me that he had a four-year degree, but that he didn’t know how to ‘do’ anything,” he says. “So he enrolled at FVTC to build his technical skills in natural resources.”
Grounded in Fundamentals
Skye learned about the FVTC program when she was working as a research assistant with the Menominee Indian Reservation in northeastern Wisconsin. She toured the campus and viewed a slide show presentation on the Natural Resources program. That’s when the light bulb went on. “I realized that it would be great if I could get some practical skills,” she says. “I really needed to get back into understanding my field again.”
The FVTC program offered an opportunity to do just that. The first year involves both natural resources fieldwork and general education courses in math and science. Technical classes focus on topics like plant identification and surveying. Other options include wildlife management, fish management, forestry, soil and water conservation, and water quality and wastewater management. Electives include wildfire introduction and live fire training.
Students also receive extensive field experience. For example, Buser regularly leads them on trout stream management projects with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Trout Unlimited. “I don’t want to be working under artificial light any more than the students do,” he says. “We’re in the field getting dirty, slapping bugs, and freezing our fingers off for the purpose of learning. Students learn better if they’re doing something. They also build their resumes with hard-to-get experience, while working alongside agency professionals.”
All second-year students must volunteer in the natural resources field throughout a semester. “This experience gives them a chance to work 80 hours and see what’s really involved in a position,” says Cecka.
Graduates are qualified for a variety of jobs with government, nonprofits, or private companies, including working as fish or wildlife management technicians, forestry technicians, campground managers, surveying assistants, wastewater technicians, and naturalists. What’s more, nearly 90% of the students from last year’s graduating class were working within six months.
A Whole New World
Skye initially worried about competing with younger students and feared the technology. She quickly found that the program’s small class sizes and personal attention from instructors calmed those fears. “Talk to the instructors,” she advises other students. “Get to know them; they are your greatest advocates.”
She now has another year of coursework ahead of her. Skye then hopes to work for an organization like the Environmental Protection Agency in an area such as water quality. “That’s my long-term goal,” she says. “A lot of our resources are getting used up. Fresh water is one of them.”
Wildland Firefighter Training at FVTC
training has emerged as one of the hottest programs at Fox Valley Technical College. One reason why, according to Rick Buser, Natural Resources department chair, is that employment in the field appears promising. Wildland fires are increasing in intensity and frequency, and baby boomers involved in fire fighting and fire management are retiring. FVTC is one of only five Wildland Firefighter training centers in North America.
FVTC courses acquaint students with fighting wildfires as well as using fire to manage grasslands, woodlands, and other habitats. “We give students a lot of experience and training,” Buser says. “When they graduate, they’re poised to work in a rewarding career that protects lives, property, and natural resources from wildfires.”