As a student at Sheboygan Falls High School, Kirsten Schmidt never dreamed that she would someday be working in Hawaii – on plants.
“In high school, I was thinking of being a veterinarian,” said Kirsten, a 2013 Sheboygan Falls graduate who is currently working on a US Park Service invasive species project in Hawaii.
Her change in career focus happened gradually but the seeds were planted during high school in agriculture teacher Bruce Brunner’s classroom. Because she wanted to work with animals, Kirsten took several classes from Brunner.
In addition to pre-vet and animal science, she took an introduction to agriculture course where she had a chance to use machinery she had never used before and discovered that she “learned best with my hands.” She also was introduced to the field of natural resources.
She became involved in Future Farmers of America, an experience that taught her valuable leadership skills.
Because Brunner had become a mentor, she asked him for advice when selecting a college. After a year at the University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan, she went to the University of Wisconsin-River Falls at his suggestion.
“He saw I was more of a small town person,” Kirsten recalled, saying the small campus was a better fit for her than large schools like the University of Wisconson-Madison.
She was still focused on becoming a veterinarian during her first year at River Falls but she did not enjoy her courses until she took a required ecology course. She had to do a plant germination project for the class and discovered a passion for plants and research.
“I was in the greenhouse every single day,” she said.
She switched her major to field biology and dove into a new career field – natural resources. Because she knew jobs would be hard to find in her new major, she volunteered at state parks to develop her resume. After graduating from River Falls in 2017, she took a job as a wildlife technician at the Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri.
During her time there, she conducted surveys of birds and deer and did many types of community education and outreach projects.
Because she was interested in learning more about invasive species, she then interviewed for a short-term position in Hawaii. She got the job and moved to Hawaii 10 days later.
She began work at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in January.
“The ecosystem is completely different than anything I have seen before,” she said.
She is also learning that her work needs to respect the folk culture where there are legends and stories about some of the plants and trees. She will be in Hawaii until May and then hopes to start working on her master’s in natural resources at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
Kirsten remains grateful to Brunner and the lessons she learned in his classroom.
“When I was in high school without his help, I wouldn’t have found River Falls and I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now,” she said. “I honestly don’t think I would be in the place I am today without his guidance,” she said.