Educational Studies student shows off her dream internship at the St. Louis Zoo
“Have you ever touched bologna? They feel like that.”
It’s a bright, sunny day at the St. Louis Zoo and UMSL Bachelor of Educational Studies student, Erica Runge, is trying to convince me to pet a stingray. Erica laughs when I respond, “Yes, I have touched bologna, but I don’t particularly like it.”
Erica’s yearlong internship duties at the St. Louis Zoo consist of working at the Stingrays at Caribbean Cove station. Everyday, eager zoo visitors line up to scrub their hands before petting the stingrays. “Up to your elbows,” Erica reminds us. Her role is to assist visitors of the stingray station and share information on the animals and ocean conservation.
We enter the pavilion and see the 17,000 gallon salt water pool swirling with stingrays and baby sharks. Kids and parents are leaning over the edge of the pool, giggling as the stingrays make a lap past them. Occasionally, a flap of a stingray’s wings whips out of the water, splashing those nearby.
As we prepare to plunge our hands in the water, we kneel next to the pool. Erica begins to talk about how the BES degree made her internship possible. The program appealed to Erica because of its emerging partnerships with well-known St. Louis institutions. “I am the first BES intern student that has been placed here. I wanted to set the bar high for the zoo to think favorably of the BES program.” Erica credits her internship as a valuable way for her to learn about the field, make connections with others, all while obtaining hands-on experience. In Erica’s case, it has become a way to get her foot in the door at her desired place of employment.
Erica’s passion for education in informal spaces is exactly what the Bachelor of Educational Studies focuses on: preparing students to teach anywhere that learning is happening. Informal education happens at zoos, science centers, and community centers. “Initially, I was an Education major. But I feel like regular education is missing out on being outside, connecting with animals, connecting with the world that all these animals and everyone call home. And I missed that. So I decided that I needed to switch into something that catered to more of a bit of everything. The BES fit that perfectly.”
Erica found that the BES coursework was flexible to tailor to fit her career aspiration. She chose the emphasis area of Informal Science and Cultural Education to help her achieve her dream job: a zoo interpreter. A zoo interpreter serves as the link between the zoo and people who visit, encouraging and guiding the visitor experience through education about conservation and the environment. “Being an interpreter at the Caribbean Cove is a lot of fun because I get to teach everybody how to pet the stingrays, feed them, and work in a conservation message. I talk to everybody about why the stingrays are so important and why it is so interesting to make connections with these animals.”
When asked about what real-world skills she is learning as part of her internship, Erica responded emphatically, “There are only three interpreters here at the St. Louis Zoo, and I am working directly with one of them as part of my internship. I am soaking up everything I can. The training I am receiving here is invaluable.”
With our hands submerged in the water, Erica continues to coach me on how to pet the stingray. To subdue my fear, Erica reminds me that the stingray’s barbs are painlessly clipped just as human fingernails are clipped. Just as I muster up my courage to really reach out as a flock of stingray slip by, a stingray flips its flap and splashes me with water. I decide that interaction was a little too close for comfort, so I recoil. Erica reassures me, and I feel her passion for the work that she does everyday with the zoo’s visitors. “That’s why I always carry a spare change of clothes now, because you never know what will happen. This is very unpredictable work. ” She details the four lessons that she quickly learned within her first week at her internship: “always bring spare clothes, carry a snack on your body, come in everyday ready to learn, and if you don’t know something, ask.”
As we walk through the zoo grounds, Erica waves at every zoo worker. She knows their names, she knows when their college-aged daughter will be home from school, she knows their schedule. I comment on how friendly everyone is. “The Zoo has really brought me in and made me feel like this is my extended family. Everyone is working for the same mission here, and I feel honored to be a part of the team. A lot of people think, “Oh, it must be so great! You get to work with all these amazing animals.” And yes, that is what initially drives people to the zoo, to go see the animals. But I believe people stay here for the connections and the experience. Working with the people here is truly amazing.”
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