Seattle Aquarium youth volunteer essay: “I am an entirely changed person”

We asked one of our recently graduated youth volunteers, Molly Kamicar, to write about her experience in the Seattle Aquarium’s Youth Ocean Advocate program. In just over a year, Molly gave over 500 hours of outstanding service to our mission, Inspiring Conservation of Our Marine Environment. Her thoughts are below.

My earliest memory of the Seattle Aquarium is from when I was second grade. I remember watching, wide-eyed, a tiny blue fish as it darted through the water, and suddenly, before I could call out, into the mouth of one of its significantly more menacing brethren. I had been certain my little fish was gone forever. To my great surprise, however, it glided nonchalantly back out of its captor’s gills a few seconds later. Both fish swam away and I stood there, wearing polka dot rain boots on my feet and a sense of wonder across my face.

I remember nothing else from that visit, but the Swallowed-Fish Incident has somehow stuck with me through all these years. The difference now is that I can tell you that that little fish was a cleaner wrasse, the larger a Napoleon, and the miracle I was sure I had been sole witness to was something called a symbiotic relationship. Nine years later, I know the science behind those childhood mysteries, but that sense of excitement I struggled to contain is something I’ve carried within me to this day. I’m still the same little girl who ran home and watched Finding Nemo five, maybe six (maybe seven, sorry mom), times, but that passion has grown tenfold as my curiosity and knowledge have expanded at a similar scale. I cannot begin to express my gratitude to the Seattle Aquarium for all it has done for me. Or, perhaps, for all it has allowed me to do for myself.

I never joined the Youth Interpreter program with any interest in marine biology. I was actually more interested in education, in the opportunity to work with kids, and in that ridiculously comfortable blue Aquarium fleece I had learned I could only attain through the volunteer program. I’d always been vaguely interested in science, but had come to believe that I could never excel, never be passionate enough, about anything outside the realm of the humanities. As I head off to college with an intended major in creative writing, it seems that not much has changed since a little over a year ago, when I first slid into that infamous Blue Fleece and stumbled awkwardly into my first, petrifying, 9:30am shift. I can safely say now, however, that as I leave the floor for the last time at 5:30 this evening, I am emerging as an entirely changed person, somehow both strikingly similar and unimaginably different from that girl who stood in the very same spot and asked the questions I now know the answers to by heart. I haven’t simply learned the difference between a squid and an octopus here, or why sharks can’t swim backwards, or how heavy a salmon gets or why a wolf eel is a type of fish or why no, sir, don’t worry, that rockfish is certainly, definitely, truthfully Not Dead.

The basis of factual knowledge I’ve gained here is a major benefit, but working with the fantastic group of people in the youth programs and in the Aquarium as a whole has taught me more than simply all that science I’ve come to love. I’ve learned how to approach people, how to hold a more engaging conversation, how to place real value into the things that I say. I’ve gained confidence, passion, and the initiative to improve myself further in every way I’m able, not only for myself and for others but also as a means to make even the slightest difference in the world.

Through the Youth Interpreter program I’ve had the opportunity to work with a unique and diverse group of both teens and adults, some of whom I can’t fathom ever having not been a part of my life, and all of whom have taught me more than I could have ever asked them for. I’ve developed my dedication and my endurance (the memory of having worked eight straight days of a special event dedicated exclusively to octopuses comes to mind), I’ve stretched my creativity and nearly mastered my improvisation, I’ve shared information and conservation messages with visitors of all ages and through education, inspiration, conservation and communication I’ve discovered where my greatest passions lie. Finally, despite all this but perhaps most importantly of all, I’ve finally learned to truly embrace, rather than fear, that simple, beautiful, liberating concept of “I don’t know.”

There are some experiences I’ve had here that I’ll cherish, others that I’ll quite honestly laugh at for years to come, but if I’m certain about anything I’m certain that even if I do forget how to differentiate between species of rockfish, why halibut swim sideways, that it’s thanks primarily to the siphonozooid polyps that a sea pen can deflate itself into a little orange lump, I will never forget the collective drive, passion and limitless devotion to that eternal mission (say it with me), Inspiring Conservation of Our Marine Environment, that has made my experience here so great.

Few things are as gratifying as when a visitor’s face, young or old, lights up with that unrestrained curiosity and hunger to learn more, to explore, to extract the inspiration that any animal or any exhibit truly has to offer. As I, one year older, mark “marine biology” as an interest for the first time on applications, I am again that little girl, standing tip-toed against a glass tank, impassioned by all the things there are to learn in the world. And I am also that cleaner wrasse, dashing headfirst into the darkness, fully confident in the day I will remerge and be undoubtedly better for it. I can’t offer anything but my gratitude (and some bad metaphors) to the unparalleled mentors, biologists, administration, and volunteers I’ve had the privilege to work with for some of the most valued 509 hours of my life. I’d like to give the Seattle Aquarium and everyone in it the most sincere, empathetic, and vaguely saltwater-scented thank you: for teaching me, for inspiring me, and for providing me with the tools to do the same for others. I have never had an experience so rewarding as all the time I have spent here.

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