Defining my success as a conservationist

Grace Doleshel speaking about her work at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium's Ocean Voices Night
Grace Doleshel speaking about her work at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium's Ocean Heros night.

All too often I find myself in a conversation about how intimidating I am.  How my confidence and my success in my desired field of conservation separates me from the rest of my generation and prevents me from having “typical” conversations with my peers.  I say the word typical loosely, because what do “typical” youth conversations look like? And why are conversations about pressing environmental issues seen as atypical when youth around the world have proven time and time again that they are the ones willing to take the larger stance?  I get told on a daily that the work I have done is “so successful for my age” so “impressive for my age”, but I do not view myself that way. The work that I have done has not been hard, in fact, the opportunities that I have had are often always readily available to the American public, it’s the adult ideology that youth cannot take a stance that’s hard.

I am successful, yes.  I am a 17 year old, graduating high school senior from Enumclaw High School in Washington State, USA.  I am a senior zoo guide at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma Washington, a Council Member of the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Youth Advisory Council, the National Advocacy Coordinator for the Youth Ocean Conservation Summit and a 2019 delegate for Sea Youth Rise Up.  I also do work in political advocacy and environmental policy and have lobbied for many environmental bills in Washington state, including an initiative to criminalize wildlife trafficking in the state of Washington, bills to replace single use plastic bags and straws with biodegradable and/or reusable alternatives and a bill to commit Washington state to 100% clean energy by 2045.  I have spoken publicly about conservation movements at the University of Washington, Green River College and a variety of local venues hosted by Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. People know who I am, I am successful. But it’s not because I am young. I am successful because of my own definition of success, because I am doing vastly more work with more organizations now than I was when I first started.

It is so easy for people to look at my resume and become intimidated, and it is easy for my peers to see me as “self centered” when I openly say I’m successful, as if I’m full of myself or I’m bragging about my achievements. Let me tell you, it is okay to be proud of yourself and it is okay to acknowledge your success. In fact, it is important in the conservation field. If there is something I have learned about conservation advocacy, it is that this is a field built on competition. If you are not actively competing, speaking, and working to make yourself known, your work is going to get left behind.  

My work did not start as a success, in fact, I am still dealing with setbacks and failures.  But no good work has a perfect track record. When I first started volunteering at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, I wasn’t a senior zoo guide, but rather just a zoo guide.  As a zoo guide I worked only summers, educating zoo guests on the animals and discussing their conservation threats in the wild. As a senior zoo guide I would work year round, mentoring middle and high school volunteers, and developing conservation projects to implement into the zoo’s already ongoing efforts. I wanted to be a senior guide so bad, at the time that was the goal, the finish line for me. And my first year I applied, I didn’t get it. I was heartbroken, unsure if I even wanted to continue on as a zoo guide the next summer. But I did, and I tried again and I got it the second time around. It wasn’t until later that I realized not getting the senior guide position the first time I applied made me better at my job and made me work harder towards my goals.  Flash forward to this past year. I applied to be a member of the World Oceans Day Youth Advisory Council. This is a global council with two sitting representatives from each participating country. I knew this was a stretch for me since I was going up against youth in the entire United States, but I applied anyways. Upon reviewing every application, the voting committee compiled a list of 25 finalists from around the world. To my surprise, my name was on the list. I was so close, I felt like I had a good chance. I was excited to be on that council. But the final team came out, and I wasn’t on it. That one was hard. But it was after not making it onto the council, I was invited to apply for the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Youth Advisory Council, a council I am now a part of. This opportunity enhanced my career more than I can express, and I met some of my closest friends and mentors through this team. I can’t imagine not being a part of it. For that, I’m glad I didn’t get on the World Oceans Day Council.

It’s easier said than done, but it is important to be accepting of your setbacks, maybe even thankful for your setbacks. Setbacks will happen.  Even the best still experience failure in one way or another. But the reason I am as successful as I am is because I keep working despite my setbacks. It is hard, it is exhausting, and it never gets easier. But it’s how you make a career worthwhile. Before, I said I was successful because I was doing more now than I was at the beginning, and that is true.  But I am also successful because I have not only dealt with failure, but overcome failure. Success is driven by passion, by hard work and determination, but is defined by your connections and responses to unavoidable adversity.

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