We talked to Naomi about her experience at Unity and how it changed her outlook on the future.
On May 9, she was handed her Unity degree and was decorated with a gold honor cord (signifying a cumulative GPA of 3.33 or higher), a purple philanthropy cord (signifying students who have donated to Unity), and a Student Government Association Award (recognizing her student leadership role on campus). Only weeks later, Naomi Haber ’15, of Florence, Mass., is an education aide at a zoo in western Massachusetts.
What were the factors that helped you decide to go to Unity?
After I graduated from high school, I took a year off to work at a daycare. I was in no hurry to get back into being a full-time student any time soon. During my time working with kids, I found myself enjoying the units about animals or habitats the most. I loved sharing what I knew about animals. I realized that I would like to work directly with animals, but find some way to work my newfound love of teaching into the mix.There were plenty of schools with programs in biology or education, fewer with zoology programs, and only a handful with programs specialized in zoo science. Even if I got a degree in any of those majors, I worried my dream of working with animals was unrealistic.
After attending a local community college for a few semesters, I learned about Unity College and their Captive Wildlife Care and Education major. I was initially hesitant because I had never lived away from home. But my desire to one day work at a zoo as an educator drove me to apply to Unity.
In the spring of 2012, my mother and I took a trip up to visit the school. It was just a few days after commencement, so there were no students around. The campus was blooming and the sun was shining. The buildings were small, and I can still remember seeing Cianchette standing proudly atop the hill, with its wood siding and dark green roofs.
Our tour guide was an enthusiastic blonde boy named Jeff. He showed us around the empty buildings, told us endearing stories about the students, and offered great insight to life at Unity College. From him, I learned that Unity College is a community where everyone knows each other, being outdoors is encouraged, classes are nontraditional but effective, and sometimes during duck hunting season, people come to their 8 o'clock class with camouflage still smeared on their faces from an early morning hunt.
Afterward, we met Cheryl Frederick, one of the two professors at the helm of the CWCE program. Her years of rich experience in both the natural and zoo worlds were an inspiration. I realized, it wasn't crazy! My dream of working in a zoo and being both happy and successful … it can be done! And Unity was where I needed to start.
Before we even got in the car to drive home, I knew that Unity was the school I wanted to go to. I wanted to be a part of the community and of the unique student body, I wanted to learn from Cheryl and the other professors like her, and I wanted to chase my dream of being a zookeeper.
What was your desired course of study when you came here, did that change? If so, why?
I studied Captive Wildlife Care and Education. In the two and a half years I spent there, I never felt I chose the wrong major. Each course was relevant to the major, and each assignment was carefully designed to get us thinking critically. I feel like the specialized classes at Unity have given us an advantage over other graduates on the same career paths, and I do believe that Unity students will one day soon become desired assets in the captive wildlife world.
Describe some of the academic work you did while at Unity.
There are so many times I've used the knowledge I've gained at Unity. While leading a pond exploration the other day through the zoo where I work, a child asked me what kind of bass live in freshwater environments. After expressing how impressed I was at the 7-year-old’s fairly specific question, I tapped into what I had recently learned in Ichthyology class and gave him a small list of bass that he could find in lakes or rivers. He was rather disappointed, however, to learn that striped bass do not live in the small pond we would be exploring.
Animal Training class helped me attempt to reshape my dog's resource-guarding behavior by utilizing “positive reinforcement operant conditioning.” And I've applied my knowledge of animal enrichment to help design the curriculum for the zoo camp I'm working at this summer.
Was Unity like or unlike your past educational experiences?
Both Unity College and the community college I transferred from had decent-sized classes and a hands-on approach when it came to science classes. The ecology and zoology professors at my previous school were friendly and open; we called them by their first name and enjoyed leaving the classroom to do field work with them. This type of teaching, though uncommon at most schools, made those classes more engaging and enjoyable.
As uncommon as those teaching methods are in schools, experiential learning is what Unity is all about. In fact, even the non-science classes at Unity encourage students to get out and about. The professors in Fitness and Wellness, Algebra, and even Creative Writing all encouraged us to actually go out and experience what we were learning about, whether that meant trying to describe sounds we heard around campus with a single word, or calculating the height of the tree outside the classroom by measuring its shadow. A friendly learning atmosphere, backed with hands-on learning opportunities …. I'd say that's what makes Unity different from other schools.
Describe one of your favorite classes at Unity College
Let me tell you, it is very hard to pick a single favorite Unity College class!
Animal Health class was appropriately challenging while it also packed us full of knowledge that we can apply to any animal we may encounter. I enjoyed Interpretation of Natural and Cultural Heritage because our peers taught us something new every single class and we got to participate in activities that we would otherwise would not have the chance to experience, such as being able to correctly throw a boomerang. I loved that my Ichthyology lab only had four other students in it, because that allowed our professor to sit down with us and make sure that we each knew how to properly extract the otoliths of a fish.
Ornithology meant bird-watching competitions in the springtime, and Wildlife Techniques meant assisting at deer-check stations in the fall. I honestly can't think of a single class I don't have a good memory of.
What are your plans now that you’ve graduated?
I am currently employed in a seasonal position in the education department of a local zoo, and I couldn't be happier.
Two summers ago, I completed an internship at the Zoo in Forest Park and Education Center in Springfield, Mass. The successful completion of an internship is required for all CWCE students.
It may sound daunting, but we had help from our supervisors every step of the way, and the experience gained through these internships was invaluable. Not only did we get the exposure of actually working in a field directly related to our degree, but we also made connections and had opportunities to apply our knowledge to real problems.
Anyway, I worked alongside another Unity College intern, and together we spent the summer giving educational animal talks to people of all ages throughout western Massachusetts and Connecticut, learning how to work with a variety of native and exotic animals.
The following summer, I was asked to return to the zoo as a camp counselor for their summer Zoo Camp. I was thrilled and honored that they wanted to hire me, and I eagerly accepted the position.
That summer was easily one of the best summers I've had in a long time. I made great friends and spent every day engaging kids in the world of animal care. Helping campers conquer their fear of snakes or bugs, training eager CITs in the basics of animal presentations, or seeing that spark in a kid's eye when they first realize that working with animals might be something they want to do when they grow up. I was so happy to be a part of it all.
My ultimate goal is to one day work in the education department of a zoo. But for the time being, I'll be returning to the zoo as the Lead Camp Counselor of Zoo Camp. I'm not sure where life will take me beyond the summer, but I am confident that the education I've received at Unity has prepared me for a successful future in animal care.