The Right Tool for the Job…

By: Rocco Saracina

[…or Why I Chose Virginia Tech’s Master of Natural Resources Degree]

I always loved the outdoors and envisioned a career that connects me to nature. When it came time to go to college, I landed in an environmental science program at Humboldt State University. Early on I had a preservationist attitude towards natural resources, but my education quickly spurred my interest in enacting conservation through a more dynamic sustainability approach. I began to recognize a future role for myself but didn’t know the path to get there. My bachelor’s provided perspective, and I was also fortunate to spend three summers with the US Forest Service developing invaluable technical skills. Still, something was missing.

linking-future-forests-to-communitiesI graduated in 2010. I don’t want to place too much emphasis on the status of the economy at that time… let’s just say my lofty sustainability career goals didn’t come to fruition right away. I spent some time in an internship at a small environmental consulting firm. In fact, my internship was extended two times, and I was hopeful it would evolve into a permanent position. Yet as contracted projects ended, I found myself without a job. Eventually, I managed to land an internship at the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), and this time they couldn’t let me go. SFI is a nonprofit responsible for managing the largest third-party forest certification standard in North America, as well as numerous community building and conservation efforts.

I found myself settling in quickly at SFI, but still I was yearning for more. I wanted to spend less time building databases and more time building partnerships; I wanted to contribute to strategic leadership in our organization, and I wanted to do it as soon as possible. That’s when I started looking towards graduate school.

2000-01-01-00-01-09-1After exploring numerous potential degree programs, I decided to take a closer look at Virginia Tech’s Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR). I didn’t take the choice of graduate school lightly. I visited with the XMNR professors and sat in on classroom sessions. The first of these sessions was being taught by a designer who specialized in compelling graphic displays of data, and I remember immediately thinking this program could provide the tools I needed to take my career to the next level.

It wasn’t only the content that drew me in, but also the engagement of the 30 or so students in the classroom… it was clear they were a cohort dedicated to helping each other succeed.

It wasn’t only the content that drew me in, but also the engagement of the 30 or so students in the classroom. They weren’t just thoughtful; it was clear they were a cohort dedicated to helping each other succeed. Even so, I was nervous to get started. I seemed to be on the younger end of the cohort I visited, and I wondered if I was too inexperienced, or if it was too early to pursue my master’s degree. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had stumbled upon my next professional breakthrough and applied the next day.

This early impression of the program turned out to be true throughout my tenure in the XMNR. Of course, there were many aspects of our work that I couldn’t possibly have anticipated at the time. For instance, I expected to find the natural resource science aspects of the program to be the most intellectually rewarding areas of focus. However, I came to find out that the interpersonal and leadership skills I’ve learned are much more valuable to me, particularly in the context of my career. The program also helped me understand my workplace, communications, and problem-solving preferences, which have been infinitely helpful in both my career and personal life. That may sound esoteric but, trust me, there is a lot you can learn about yourself. The XMNR content also expanded my knowledge of system scale sustainability considerably, forcing me to think strategically about the opportunities, challenges, and tradeoffs of working with natural resource issues in an increasingly globalized world.

Perhaps most importantly, the XMNR allowed me to manage my busy personal life and a full-time career without compromising my educational journey. I’ve been busy, but the workload has been manageable, and at times, very enjoyable. Not many of the programs I explored offered a design that’s feasible for working adults. It has also greatly expanded my professional network through numerous in-class guest lectures. In a few cases, I’ve built relationships that have expanded into my professional role. Although I’m happy with my career, others in my cohort are looking for career pivots and the in-class networking has opened new doors for more than a few of them. While I have also expanded my network through my classmates, it’s worth noting I’ve grown close with quite a few as well, and that has been very personally rewarding.

It’s hard to believe I’m taking off soon for my international residency in India, the last leg of the XMNR program. The time has flown by. I haven’t even graduated yet, and I’m pleased to report I attained a major promotion at SFI, which has set me well on my way towards strategic leadership aspirations. My achievements took hard work, but the XMNR helped me significantly accelerate my career progression. While I can’t promise you a promotion, I can assure you that Virginia Tech’s Master of Natural Resources will provide the tools you need to elevate your impact.