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The 5 Lessons I Learned From Joining Zoo Crew

It was my very first interview.

And I had not prepared for any of the questions beforehand.

Let me back up.

Always Stay Curious

It was the spring of 2018 and I had just applied for a volunteer position at a competitive program for teens at the Houston Zoo.

I had found out about Zoo Crew in 2017 but because I had missed the application deadline that year, I had to wait an exhausting 12 months before I could apply. During that long year, all I could imagine was the wonders I would get to experience volunteering at the zoo.

I didn’t know much about the daily commitments, but I did know I would be working around animals, conservationists, and zoo experts. As a long-standing animal lover and marine biologist hopeful, I couldn’t wait for the opportunity. All I had to do was get accepted and I would be able to take my first step toward my ambitious career dreams.

I heard about the Zoo Crew program in 2017 from the head zookeeper of the sea lion department.

I had been doing a science project around sea lions. While I stood at their habitat, trying to study their behaviors, she approached me and my dad and struck up a conversation. It was a short interaction as she had to get back to work, but before she turned to leave, she asked me: Is there anything I can help you with?

Not having any answers prepared, I frantically grasped at something to say. And after a few seconds of awkward silence, I responded: Are there any places where I could get experience in marine biology?

She smiled at my answer and provided me with several marine-themed youth programs including the Zoo Crew program. And although she admitted that it wasn’t specifically marine biology focused, if I got in, I would have the opportunity to potentially work alongside a zookeeper in the aquarium or sea lion department in my second year of the program.

We thanked her for her help, went our separate ways, and I learned my first valuable lesson from my experience at Houston Zoo:

  1. Always stay curious and doors might open up that you didn’t even know existed.

Passion and Confidence Are The Keys to Communication

Fast forward to the next year, after about a month of waiting to receive word regarding my application status, I got an email telling me that I had been invited for an interview. I immediately contacted the zookeeper that I had met and told her the news.

I was thrilled by the invitation — less thrilled by the fact that it would be a panel interview, and even less thrilled that I would be interviewed alongside 4 other aspiring zoo crew.

But for the most part, I was thrilled.

And in my excitement, I failed to think about what actually went into a job interview.

I got to the interview space several minutes early and sat in the auditorium with the other waiting interviewees. At that moment I realized how unprepared I was for the interview.

It was my very first interview and I had not prepared for any of the questions beforehand.

And while I was extremely nervous in that situation, I was resolved to answer the questions clearly, concisely, and as best I could.

Then, my group was called in for an interview.

At first, the interview went fairly smoothly. They asked us standard interview questions and all of our answers were boring and unoriginal.

But then the interviewers asked us a question that I was not expecting at all.

Why do you care about animals and environmental conservation?

For a moment I panicked, but then I remembered a technique my mom taught me: breathing deeply to clear your head and allow yourself to truly process the question.

And after a couple of deep breaths, I answered:

I care about animals and environmental conservation because I believe in God. And I believe that God gave us this world, the natural world as a gift.

If my dad gave me a beautiful ring as a gift, I would never trash it or junk it up. I would preserve it, maintain it, and protect it as best I could.

And that is how I think we should act around nature. It is a gift from God, and we should protect it, preserve it, and maintain it to show our gratitude for this priceless gift.

So that is why I care about animals and environmental conservation. I believe the gift of nature has been damaged and is my dream to try to help restore it.

I was 13 years old at the time and that answer was by far the most profound thing I had ever said. It was so impressive that even the interviewers looked impressed after I finished my response.

When I told my dad what I had said that night, he was blown away. I don’t think I have ever seen him so unexpectedly proud and impressed. That was the first moment that I began to realize that my voice had power. And ever since that moment, I have taken pride in using my voice to lead, inspire, and educate.

I learned 2 more lessons from that interview experience. A personal lesson and a life lesson:

  1. When I am truly passionate about something, I communicate with remarkable clarity and energy.

  2. Confidence is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once I began to be confident in my ability to communicate, I began to seek out opportunities to broaden my skills, which in turn led me to become incredibly skilled at public speaking and oral communication.

And, if you hadn’t already guessed, I was told a couple of weeks later that I had gotten accepted to be a Zoo Crew.

Never-ending Interviews and The Power of Networking

My first year as a zoo crew was fun and engaging, but what I was really looking forward to was the second year. Second-year Zoo Crews were eligible to apply to become junior zookeepers in various areas of the zoo.

I had my eye set on the aquarium.

Heeding my mom’s advice, I reached back out to the head zookeeper of the sea lion department and asked her for advice on ways to prepare for my upcoming application for a spot as a junior zookeeper. Her response was this: I am friends with the head zookeeper of the aquarium department. Would you like to meet him?

I happily agreed and had a productive meet-up and conversation with the head zookeeper a couple of weeks later.

I was unsure of how meeting the zookeeper would help with the highly competitive application. But when I applied and got invited for an interview, that same keeper was my interviewer.

The head zookeeper and I conversed easily and even before our interview had ended, I was confident that I had gotten the spot.

Several weeks later I received the confirmation. I had been accepted as a junior zookeeper in the aquarium department. And from that experience, I learned 2 more lessons:

  1. You are ALWAYS interviewing. When I met with the head zookeeper, I had shown him my genuine interest in the aquarium, which proved much more powerful than trying to tell him the same thing in an interview.

  2. Networking is how you get jobs, NOT impressive resumes. If the head of the sea lion department had not connected me to the head of the aquarium, I probably wouldn’t have gotten that spot.

In summary, while I was only 13 and 14 while working at the zoo, I learned 5 profound lessons that have stayed with me since. They have changed the way I see the world, and the way I interact with it, and they are the reason why I am writing this blog today. But I think the biggest lesson to be learned from this experience, is that learning can happen ANYWHERE.

When I started Zoo Crew, I was interested in gaining experience around animals and conservationists and making connections in fields that I was interested in.

Even though I did achieve those goals, the lessons I learned from working there will have a bigger impact on my life than any of those experiences or connections ever will.

So, sorry.

I guess I lied.

I should probably retitle this blog toThe 6 Lessons I Learned From The Zoo.


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