Alumni Story: Karrie Arnold

Karrie Arnold served as a GulfCorps Crew Leader with the Student Conservation Association(SCA) in Alabama for nine months. GulfCorps is a partnership between The Corps Network, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and several regional Corps programs. It’s supported via funds from the RESTORE Act. TNC administers the program, working with Corps organizations across the five Gulf States, SCA being the Corps in Alabama. The Corps Network provides technical assistance and workforce development programming to GulfCorps members.  

While serving as a Crew Leader, Karrie completed her master’s capstone project on GIS mapping and later became a staff member with SCA, first as Program Assistant and then Program Coordinator for Alabama. She now works for TNC as the Conservation Information Manager for the GulfCorps Program. She shares her journey, words of wisdom to future Corpsmembers, and where she is today because of her Corps experience.   

How long did you serve with Student Conservation Association (SCA)? How did you first hear about the Program?

I started with SCA in September 2018, served as a Crewleader for nine months, and then transitioned into a staff position as Program Assistant. I later became Program Coordinator. I heard of the program while I was in an AmeriCorps position for Mobile Baykeeper, a nonprofit that partners with GulfCorps; they are part of the Waterkeeper Alliance. I helped with volunteer engagement there and learned about GulfCorps. 

Can you tell us a bit about your background? What were you doing prior to the program and what made you want to join?

My undergrad was in psychology and I wanted to be a counselor. I took a class on social justice issues and learned about environmental justice. It made things click for me and I realized I could do a career in both of these fields and help both people and the environment.  

I finished my psychology degree and planned to go into an MBA program but instead took additional undergrad physical science courses. During this time, I was the Sustainability Coordinator at Spring Hill College, which helped pay for my tuition. I ran the recycling program, wrote a grant to get a community garden on campus, and assisted in other green initiatives. I finished my courses and applied for my masters at the University of Illinois. While doing my masters, I picked up that AmeriCorps position.  

Karrie doing some carpentry work.

What projects did you work on while with the Corps?

A little bit of everything: different habitat types, wetlands and uplands, carpentry work like repairing boardwalks, and invasive species removal. The project I enjoyed most was for my capstone, taking elevation points in the salt marsh. My team and I were taught how to use a Trimble, which is basically a big pole with a GPS on the top of it to take elevation points in the salt marsh. Satellite images, because of the waterflow and tide changes, cannot read the elevation correctly. For my capstone project I took that data and did some sea level rise projections for the reserve we were working at. From there, they worked to see what management strategies they could do with it. 

What were some of the best parts about this program? What were some of the challenges? Do you have a favorite or most memorable experience?

The challenges were keeping people motivated as a Crew Leader. I had a co-leader to help play games as we worked and try to have fun, keeping the focus on the “why.” A big thing I enjoy with mapping is getting to see the visual of the work you’re doing, the end result, and direct impact.  

My most memorable experience was with the whole team – about 18 of us – we were doing this big invasive removal project down on Dauphin Island, which is a barrier island. It’s a bird sanctuary for the migratory birds going up and down from North to South America. The barrier island where we were working has freshwater ponds or lakes and we were trying to protect and preserve those. If those lakes go away, the birds don’t have a place to rest while migrating as they can’t drink the saltwater.  

The invasive work we were doing was helping to make sure there wasn’t further erosion so that the salt water didn’t leak in. We were in knee-deep water, chainsawing, and we had some migratory birds flying over us. It was super impactful that the species were there. It was intense, you could see your breath because it was really cold, but everyone was working together; it’s a memory I’ll always have. 

Karrie as a Crewleader, teaching at orientation.

What training, resources, and support were you provided through this program?

GulfCorps is all training – I got chainsaw training, fire training to do prescribed burning, all the field skills training, professional development, carpentry training, and I just went back to SCA to help lead a carpentry training. Also, unique to my position, I felt like I knew professional development, but it helped me as a leader to help teach those skills. I saw the impact it had on people who didn’t even have their GED or were working towards that. It helped my own skills by learning how to teach those skills. The Corps Network – who is the key partner for professional development with GulfCorps – has created such great resources for Corps and leaders to teach these skills to their members.  

What were your original goals for after the program and what resources did the program provide to help you get there?

I wanted to do city planning or related to natural resources and community work. I was trying to combine working with both people and nature. We did a career day towards end of program where you got to meet with a professional in the field you want to go in, have lunch and talk with them, and see what they do day to day. It made me realize I wanted to focus more on natural resource work. There was a ton of resources and that day really stuck with me. 

The bird sanctuary habitat after removal of invasive species at Dauphin Island.

What type of work do you do now and how did your Corpsmember experience help you get there? What skills (soft skills, certifications, etc.)did you take from this program?

I’m blessed that I’m still at the program that I started at and worked my way from the bottom up. Now I manage the monitoring program for all of GulfCorps. As a Crew Leader, one of my responsibilities was to lead the monitoring for our Alabama crews and back then, in year 2 of the program, it wasn’t all figured out. Every year since then, I have helped to formulate the program more. It’s still a work in progress in year 5, but every year we have learned to adapt the program to match member’s needs.  

Training is also a huge aspect of my job now. We have an annual orientation where all the crews come together for a big kickoff and intro training. When I first became Program Assistant with SCA, my biggest role was leading the charge for this event. TNC contracts SCA to organize and host the GulfCorps orientation. I learned a lot about planning events, was able to see trainers in action, and all those pieces have helped me understand what works for teaching people. Having been in the position of the people I’m teaching also helps. I can’t expect people to know specific tech things, like using a GPS, so I think about what I wanted to know when I started.   

What impact did this community and experience have on your story? What do you feel you gained personally and professionally?

My life is GulfCorps, I don’t know what I’d be doing now without it. I’m really thankful for all of it. I’m not originally from the Gulf of Mexico region, I’m originally from the Midwest, being introduced to different habitats and the impacts of climate change here. It’s really opened my eyes to differences in our country as well.  

Karrie in the salt marsh while completing her capstone collection activities.

Why is it important for young people to be involved in this type of work?

As far as issues like climate change, and the state of our environment worldwide, I think young people are aware of it because of social media but don’t fully understand what’s happening or appreciate what is out there. Once you’re in it you’re more willing to protect it and fight for it. A picture is worth a thousand words but when you’re actually there, it’s infinite. 

What would you say to others who are considering their next steps or a program like this? Do you have any advice?

For folks considering the program, in relation to the pay, if you can make it work for the six months or however long, it’s not the monetary value you get; it’s the amount of training and experience you get. Especially with GulfCorps, with the networking you get to meet so many partners and there’s such a high success rate of people moving into another career in conservation. You have the ability to be there with a project partner and say, “look at me, I know what I’m doing, I work hard.”  

I did a lot of the recruiting as a Corps staff member. I’d say focus on what you’ll get out of it then, instead of just the monetary value. I know me saying that comes from a place of privilege and us as Corps need to try to make it easier for all citizens to be able to join a Corps and meet their financial needs. Still, whatever you can do to make it work, I still think is worth it in the long run.