Confession: I moved to the Florida Keys during a pandemic

*Sometimes I use affiliate links in my content. This won’t cost you anything and will not harm our mother earth. I just might get some funding to go toward filling my logbook and sharing more with you.

Yes, in the midst of a pandemic, I moved down to the Florida Keys for the summer.

Craziest thing I have ever done? Definitely not.
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Post-graduation plans were looking grim with COVID-19 after a virtual graduation, until I was accepted to the Marine Conservation Internship at Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) in Key Largo, FL. REEF is a non-profit focused on citizen science and community engagement in marine conservation.

The 10-week internship began in the middle of June. I drove all the way down to Florida in just 2 days from Maryland with the help of my boyfriend. It was a long drive, but we were greeted by the most beautiful weather.

I lived with the other interns at REEF in a beautiful vacation rental house near about almost everything in Key Largo. Not only was our porch screened in (which is perfect because the Keys has MANY mosquitoes), but it wrapped all the way around. It provided the perfect place to eat outside, workout at night without being bitten up, and to simply enjoy the weather.

During this internship, I had a lot of new experiences and gained a lot of new skills. Just to name a few:

  • Learned more about my late Uncle Andy, his experiences with marine life, and his scuba diving career
  • Realized my passion for citizen science
  • Refined many professional skills
  • Became a Level 3 Surveyor at REEF
  • Made amazing friends
  • Grew as a scuba diver
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REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project

My favorite part of this internship was learning about and participating in the Volunteer Fish Survey Project (VFSP). This citizen science project allows scuba divers and snorkelers to record and report information about marine fish populations all over the world. My favorite part is that REEF provides the training to learn how to identify fish and makes uploading data very easy. The database REEF maintains is a source for many research publications and provides data for the monitoring and management of important populations and invasive species.

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Scuba Diving Accomplishments

The diving in the Keys is absolutely beautiful. Luckily, I got to enjoy it on my days off. This added up to a total of 35 dives and now my lifetime list is 60 dives.

In addition, I finished my PADI Advanced Open Water and Enriched Air Diver certification with Key Dives.

For my Advanced, I dove at Jules’ Undersea Lodge to knock out three of my dives. It is exactly what it sounds like, it is a hotel underwater! The lagoon has low visibility, so it is not an amazing dive destination, but it is a pretty cool concept and you sometimes get to see manatees!

The 5 dives I did for my Advanced were deep, night, navigation, peak performance buoyancy, and fish identification.

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At the end of the summer, I decided to go ahead and get my PADI Rescue Diver certification. I am so glad that I did!

As I wrote in my Instagram post below:

This course meant more to me than I expected it would when I first set this goal. I knew that diving emergencies happen. My uncle passed away after a diving accident.

However, this summer I was part of a group who responded to a panicked diver. The situation grew to become very serious and my CPR training became my instinct.

The diver made a full recovery because of the training everyone who was on the boat that day had and the actions they took.

After that moment, I knew I wanted to learn how to better respond in those situations because although I am CPR certified, I was unprepared for how to respond in the water with scuba gear on…in three foot waves.

But thanks to @keydives and @scubavegan, I feel equipped with the knowledge and training to better respond to diving emergencies.

Accidents can happen anywhere at anytime. Although we work to prevent them, we should also be ready to respond to them!

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Favorite Bites and Sips in the Upper Keys

After spending a summer in the Upper Keys, I definitely have some places I would recommend! I did not get to go everywhere, so this is definitely not everything…just what I could do with COVID-19 around!

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Saying Goodbye to the Keys was not easy

However, I can confidently say this more about the Keys than any other place I have been: it is not goodbye, only see you later.

This was an invaluable experience an undoubtedly has given me a new perspective on my life and connection with marine conservation.

I also gained new ideas for future projects and I am excited to share those soon.

Until then, don’t forget to check out my new Instagram!

And that’s a wrap!

Even though the semester finished online, it ended (almost) like most do.

*Sometimes I use affiliate links in my content. This won’t cost you anything and will not harm our mother earth. I just might get some funding to go toward filling my logbook and sharing more with you.

I had final projects and assignments to complete. Juniata College’s athletics department had the Alfies, the annual award ceremony. Although a few things were missing, two important events still happened online: Liberal Arts Symposium and graduation.

Juniata Cheerleading Seniors
watching the Alfies together
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Liberal Arts Symposium

Liberal Arts Symposium (LAS) is Juniata College’s version of a research symposium. It is my favorite tradition because it showcases students’ work and projects from the academic year. I was able to present my Hollings scholarship project with the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Virginia because I have been spending the academic year working on a manuscript for a publication with my mentor. The benefit of this being done via Zoom is that my family were able to listen and support me from afar.

Send Off Zoom Calls

As a senior, this semester was supposed to be my last time to annoy my professors and pick their brains. Some of this time was lost, but many departments still gave their seniors a send off celebration. We had a Zoom happy hour to reminisce and tell stories about our memorable moments in the Environmental Science department and at Juniata.

Photos creds to Liz Ruszczyk
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Graduation

Lastly, I had the infamous virtual graduation.

To be honest, I was not expecting much, but Juniata greatly exceeded my expectations. However, my cap and gown did not arrive in time, so I had to get resourceful. I had celebrated with the Her Campus’ “I’m Still Graduating Event” and had received a cap plus some goodies from a variety of brands, including Havaianas, Conair, RXBAR, Hallmark, and Aussie, so I wore that cap paired with my high school graduation gown.

The Zoom room allowed for 1,000 participants so everyone who wanted to attend, plus the students, were able to join. We sat in my living room and I wore my cap and gown because why not? Unlike most “professional” webinar style Zoom meetings, they allowed for everyone’s screens to be displayed and for us to use the chat box with everyone. This was fun because you could scroll through the pages and see all your friends dressed up, like we would have been.

Messages were sent through the chat congratulating each other and sharing expressions of joy. We had speakers, music, and then a huge surprise. The staff and faculty created a video with heartfelt messages to say congratulations and give us their final goodbyes. During the video, our names and honors scrolled across the screen to honor us all individually. There was also an online program to view degrees and hometowns.

This beautiful video was certainly a surprise. I do not think any other class will have this special moment of pride after months of disappointment.

Watch my moment of fame:

After the celebrating, I hopped on my own Zoom call with my extended family to celebrate.

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Farewell Juniata…

I am extremely upset that my semester did not end the way I was expecting. However, I am thankful for all the time I had at Juniata and all the lessons I learned while I was there. Thank you, Juniata community.

I am proud to announce that I graduated summa sum laude with a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science. I was also awarded Distinction in my major.

I am proud of myself and all that I was able to accomplish despite my academic, mental, and physical struggles.

As I wrote on my graduation announcement:

Successful despite her Crohn’s Disease. Studied abroad in the Galapagos and lived by Raystown Lake. Loves EVERY water body, scuba diving, science, and connecting with people. In the future, hopes to be able to connect society with their surrounding ecosystem better and help our two worlds coexist together.

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What’s Next?

After graduation and my 22nd birthday festivities were over, I still had work to do! I was still working on my research manuscript with my mentor. I spent the end of May and beginning of June focusing on this paper and writing as much as I could.

I also enjoyed time at home with my family. My mom and I did yoga together weekly and worked on transforming our yard to a meadow. We also all watched a bunch of movies!

Although we were in the midst of a pandemic, having this time at home, even when I was finishing classes, was extremely beneficial to my mental and physical health.

First of all, I was able to better control my Crohn’s Disease through my diet and fitness efforts.

Second, I spent time doing professional development, applying for jobs, and identifying prospective career paths.

During this time, I was able to solidify my summer plans…

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Reef Environmental Education Foundation

I am spending the summer in Key Largo, FL as a Marine Conservation Intern with Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF). I will learn more about citizen science through their Volunteer Fish Survey Project and their role in conservation with the invasive lionfish and Nassau Grouper. In addition, I will learn more about my future career options in marine science and outreach.

I also get to dive in the Florida Keys all summer!!!

Super excited to keep you all updated on this opportunity.