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The Journey to Where My Heart Has Been All Along – Kathryn Lynn Buffington

Growing up, Zebulon, Georgia was the place I called home. Zebulon is a small town with one red light, one school system, and one grocery store. This is where I was born, where I was raised, and where I lived, but this is not where I grew up. I grew up traveling the U.S., backpacking the mountains, exploring the wilderness, and learning about the world with my dad. My dad, having completed the entire Appalachian Trail, instilled in me an undying passion for everything wild from the very beginning. With my first camping trip at age 2 and my first overnight hiking trip at age 3, I didn’t know it at the time, but my journey to Warnell began in those early years and eventually led me to where my heart has been all along: here at Warnell, the place I now call home.

Because of my childhood and its lasting impact on me, I am one of the few students who have always known what they wanted to do when they “grow up”.  In a kindergarten career book I drew pictures of myself helping dolphins, and in the fourth grade I dressed up in khakis and a safari hat with a stuffed snake around my neck, but it was not until a sixth grade career explorations class that I saw those forever changing words: wildlife biologist. After I saw that title, I never forgot it.

I spent the first two years of my college career taking my core curriculum at Gordon State College, only fifteen minutes from my hometown. Still unaware of Warnell’s existence, I worked at earning my Associates Degree in Biology and trying to figure out how and where I could go next to receive my education in wildlife. I searched the internet, researching many colleges and looking for what I knew just had to be out there for me somewhere. Walking to class one day at Gordon State, my heart even skipped a beat at a sign I saw posted on the door. I thought I had read it as “The Importance of Conservation,” but upon closer examination I realized that what it had really read was “The Importance of Conversation.” I finally discovered Warnell through the UGA website and bookmarked the page onto my laptop. I really connected with my biology professor at the time, Dr. Hyde, and discussed my interests with her, mentioning my discovery of Warnell. She was aware of Warnell’s program and assured me that Warnell had a great program for wildlife, an amazing staff that would help with me in the transferring process, and encouraged me to pursue the program after giving me a book about wildlife. Other schools that I had considered turned out to simply be a poor fit after visits and research, and so I finally and proudly decided that Warnell was the place for me. Dr. Hyde had been completely right about Warnell’s staff, and I cannot fully explain how helpful everyone was and how welcomed they made me feel even before I had ever communicated with them in person. Everything from the moment of my first contact with Warnell confirmed that I had chosen the right path. After I was accepted into UGA and then Warnell’s professional program, everything in my life started coming together and I could not have been more excited for the next chapter of my journey.

At my UGA orientation, I was so excited, proudly left as they finally called for Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. Sitting in Warnell’s own little orientation that day is one of my favorite memories. In the computer lab of Warnell’s second floor with Nicki Pinnell giving everyone the rundown of what Warnell is all about, I fought back the happiest tears I have ever felt. I am fighting tears now as I write this, which may sound silly, but that’s how strong my passion for wildlife and Warnell really is. Though I was new to both UGA and Warnell, I knew that day that I had been adopted into the family that is Warnell. My other friends of different majors at UGA struggled with adjusting and registering, but Warnell was truly with me every step of the way and I never felt a tinge of stress that “dreaded first week”.

The level of personal support here at Warnell is undeniably high and I always feel that I am being encouraged to succeed. You will have amazing counselors who you can talk to about literally anything. Their doors are always open and they are always eager to help or even just to chat. The professors here at Warnell are remarkable as well and they actually want to see you succeed, want to be here, and want to get to know YOU. I’ll never forget during midterm of my first semester in Field Measurements when one of my favorite professors, Dr. Shelton, told our entire class that he knew that the semester had reached the peak for stress and assured us that if we felt overwhelmed or just needed to talk to come and talk to him or any other staff member because he wanted to help us anyway he could. That is Warnell. When you walk into Warnell, you walk into more than a school, you walk into a home. I have made the best friends I’ve ever had here at Warnell, and I know that these are lifelong friends. You are lifted up every day by staff, professors, and friends alike so that you can’t help but succeed and prosper in all that you do and, best of all, you will have so much FUN. You may have to step out of your comfort zone a bit at first, but force yourself to go to every club meeting and event you can. Yes, you will be busy, but the reward you will receive is priceless, I know this firsthand. Go on the Sapelo Island Trip in Dr. Castleberry’s Natural History of Vertebrates. Go on Dr. Mengak’s field studies course in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Study abroad at one of our many awesome locations. Do EVERYTHING you can because Warnell has so much to offer. You will work hard in your classes, but play, have fun, and explore just as hard. I have spent countless nights in the Vertebrate Natural History lab studying animals and samples until I couldn’t think any longer. Don’t be reluctant to do that, it is necessary and it will pay off. Classes here also have amazing outdoor labs that meet in cool places like The State Botanical Gardens, Whitehall Forest, and Oconee Forest Park, the latter two being owned/managed by Warnell itself! Warnell students have such an advantage because of these unique resources that provide field exposure. If you truly apply yourself, you’ll be shocked by the end of your first semester at how much you learned in this short amount of time, and you will also be amazed by how many people you know and all the connections you’ve made. I have never been happier than I am at Warnell. Here, even my bad days are better than some students’ good days.

Although I have always known what I wanted to do with my life, I am not in the majority, and we are all on different and unique journeys. Many of my friends here did not know what they wanted to do until they discovered Warnell. Though you may not have known it, you too may have been on a journey to Warnell all along, just like myself and many others. There’s only one way ​to find out. Come find the place where your heart has been all along. We’re all waiting for you.

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