Spring 2023 grad: Kayla Okla gains leadership experience through student wildlife club

Kayla Okla, who grew up in Hartford, Wisconsin, will be graduating this spring with a bachelor’s degree. She is majoring in wildlife ecology and environmental studies. In this Q&A, Okla describes her outdoorsy upbringing, her research and classroom experiences at UW, and her involvement in campus’ Student Chapter of The Wildlife Society, including taking on a leadership role.

Why did you choose your major?
I have grown up spending time outdoors, whether it be camping and hiking in Wisconsin’s state parks as well as many national parks out west, hunting and fishing with my dad and grandpa, kayaking streams of northern Michigan, managing wood duck houses on my grandparent’s land up north, or catching frogs in our neighborhood pond. Being in nature has always been part of my lifestyle and has allowed me to grow an immense appreciation for it since a young age. I distinctly remember visiting national parks as a kid and earning my junior ranger badges. Though other kids were more interested in the little plastic ranger badge itself, I found excitement in the process. To earn our badge, we needed to complete a manual that included information about certain flora and fauna to look for, landmarks to visit, and often we needed to engage in a ranger-led presentation. It was fascinating as a young kid to explore these wide-open spaces and to learn about the plants and animals, ecology, geology, and history of the places I was visiting.

This yearning to learn about nature led me to study wildlife ecology (CALS) and environmental studies (Nelson Institute) here at UW–Madison. The wildlife ecology undergraduate program truly was my perfect niche where I was able to learn and grow my skills as a budding wildlife biologist. In the wildlife ecology major we learned basic biological science principles pertaining to wildlife, population dynamics, organismal biology, plant and animal taxonomy, and evolutionary biology. I learned about wildlife management as well as the natural resource policy that it involves. We learned experimental technique for field and laboratory work in wildlife ecology and gained skills in scientific communication.

What other activities were you involved in?
All four years at UW I was a member of the UW-Madison Student Chapter of The Wildlife Society where we engage with guest speakers in the wildlife field and take field trips to get hands-on skills and experiences in the outdoors. In my senior year I have served as the club’s vice president in which I organize meetings and field trips, communicate among members, wildlife faculty, and the state chapter members, engage in educational outreach, and facilitate fundraising. My junior year I worked as an undergraduate research assistant in the Lindroth Chemical Ecology Lab where I conducted field and laboratory work in regard to spongey moth infestations of aspen tree stands and the chemical defense response of trees according to genotype. The summer before my senior year I was part of a cohort in the Diversity in Conservation Internship Program hosted by the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin. In this program I worked at Lake Kegonsa State Park with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources where I learned about running a state park and educated visitors while also engaging with my cohort as we explored the many beautiful landscapes of Wisconsin.

What are your future academic and/or career plans?
I believe all youth should have the opportunity to experience and learn about the beauty of nature and the world we live in. My early experiences in nature and being surrounded by adults that encouraged my exploration shaped me into the steward of wildlife and environment that I am today. I plan on pursuing a career in environmental education, which will likely begin with many seasonal naturalist positions. This summer after graduation I will be serving in an AmeriCorps position as an outdoor field educator with Teton Science School in Jackson, Wyoming. In the future I hope to become an interpretive ranger for the National Park Service, so I can spread environmental knowledge to America’s youth and the public about our protected lands. My overall goal would be to encourage our young junior rangers to grow into stewards of the land just as I have so we can preserve natural areas and the wildlife, plants, and history within them for many years to come. My time in CALS has brought me valuable skills and knowledge to take forward in pursuing a career as an environmental educator/naturalist. I am confident that I will go forth in the world after graduation and make a difference in how people engage with and value nature.

What were the most meaningful college experiences you had?
As a senior wildlife ecology student, I am so thankful for the amazing opportunities my coursework through CALS has provided to me. CALS prides itself on creating “signature experiences” for students to deeply engage with their passions and coursework. This could be through taking a first-year seminar, studying abroad, joining a student organization, or through a specialized senior capstone course. In my experience, many of my classes through CALS have been unique and one-of-a-kind. Some of my most valuable and meaningful college experiences happened in my wildlife courses; In my Birds of Southern Wisconsin course, I developed a passion for birding and bird conservation and really enjoyed attending lab weekly to explore outdoor spaces in the Madison area and look for birds. I also really enjoyed my Wildlife Research Techniques course in which we conducted field experiments on campus by radio-collaring and tracking gray squirrel home ranges! These experiences gave me hands-on skills that brought excitement and immense value to my learning.

When you think about your time here as student, what are you proud of?
In my time here as a student, I am most proud of my efforts to challenge myself. Yes, I did excel academically, but I also made sure to make valuable connections among my professors and peers to guide me in my career. I am proud of my success in climbing my way up from just a member to taking on the vice president role in the Student Chapter of The Wildlife Society. I believe this position has greatly enhanced my leadership abilities and has provided valuable connections in the wildlife field. CALS isn’t just a place where I went to class, took notes and studied for exams, it is where I grew into a young professional, where I learned valuable skills, where I engaged beyond the classroom and was able to expand my horizons in the field of natural resources. CALS has given me valuable, life-long connections that will guide me through my career. CALS is a community that values growth, innovation, and discovery, which I am proud to have truly embraced.

Do you have any advice you’d like to share with CALS students?
My advice to share with CALS students is to be brave and try new things. I personally had always been a shy and reserved person that was scared to take on a leadership role or really put myself out there. Overcoming this fear has brought me so many more opportunities, skills, and knowledge by stepping out of my comfort zone while in college. I have greatly expanded my horizons academically, socially, and professionally be being open to trying new things.