Margot Shaya assists with sand dollar research. 

Margot Shaya assists with sand dollar research. 

Margot Shaya is a recent high school graduate who is taking a gap year to travel and gain some real-world experience before heading to college in the fall. She just spent a few weeks volunteering at Sanibel Sea School, and here she shares a little bit about herself and her impressions of working with kids in the ocean. Margot has also written a series of educational blogs, which we will be sharing over the next week or two - so stay tuned! 

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you are spending your gap year? 

I am a 19-year-old flute player, vegetarian, unicyclist, and book-lover from Wooster, Ohio. My parents are both professors, so every four years or so, when they had a sabbatical, the family moved. I lived in Palo Alto, California; Paris, France; and Madrid, Spain. I have always loved both the outdoors and science. When I was 16 I completed a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) hiking class in the Absaroka mountains, and I’ve wanted nothing more than to live in the wild again since. I spent the previous two summers interning at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC), researching tomato floral meristem microtubules and natural mosquito insecticides. I graduated from Wooster High School and the International Baccalaureate Program in the spring of 2016. Last fall I interned at Prince William Forest Park in Virginia. After I finish volunteering at Sanibel Sea School, I will embark on an adventure living and working in France, and I will then attend school at Carleton college.

What brought you to Sanibel Island and Sanibel Sea School during your gap year? 

I came to Sanibel Island to stay with my grandparents for a couple of months, after finishing a Student Conservation Association internship in a national park in Virginia. Finding the Sea School was mostly luck. I wanted to gain experience in a new field, and I wanted to spend most of my time outside. So I wrote to several nonprofit organizations on the island, and the Sea School wrote back. 

Describe a typical day in the life of a volunteer at Sanibel Sea School. 

There is no typical day volunteering. The first week, I spent each day helping with winter camp: entertaining the kids and herding them from one activity to another. I helped supervise, but mostly I tried to encourage the kids in activities and to help them have fun—to coerce them into cold water with jokes and riddles or to show them how fun picking up trash could be. After winter camp, my days became more variable. I often helped with a day class: I learned lots about fiddler crabs, and wrack lines, and sharks. I also helped with the sand dollar research: sampling the distribution of sand dollars, measuring their length, and conducting the spawning experiment. And I helped with several after school programs, both on Sanibel and in Fort Myers, where we and the kids went fishing, exploring at Bunche Beach, or seining and surfing.

What was your favorite experience during your time with us?

I don’t think I can pinpoint a favorite experience. Maybe surfing with the winter camp kids, or when we smashed a watermelon (it's a long story). Maybe seeing a manatee for the first time. But there were too many great, memorable experiences to choose just one!

Did anything surprise you?

I was surprised both by how much I enjoyed working with kids and how exhausting it was. They have such interesting personalities and such boundless energy! I was also surprised by all I learned about the ocean. I had never seen a live sand dollar, much less force one to release its gametes! I had never been to Bunche Beach, much less lick salt from the back of a black mangrove leaf. And I had never seen an alligator in the wild, much less test the salinity of ponds to see if they would be a suitable alligator habitat. I was amazed by the diverse habitats and organisms of the ocean that I knew nothing about.

What advice do you have for someone who is thinking about taking a gap year? 

I think that every college-bound student should seriously consider taking a gap year. I have never met anyone who regretted doing so. It’s a fantastic opportunity to travel, to explore nonacademic interests, to meet new people, to practice living away from home, etc. Because of my year I already have much more work experience and a better understanding of what different environmental careers might be like; I am no longer burned out from high school and I even look forward to studying again in college; I learned lots about nature; and I learned how to live on my own (including how to shop for groceries, cook, clean, do all my own laundry, etc.). So far, taking this year has been one of the best decisions of my life.

What are you planning to do next? 

On Thursday I fly to France. I will be staying with a family in Mende, a small town in the south. I will attend some science classes at the local high school and assist in the english classes. Then in April I will travel to Brittany, in the west, and work on several organic farms. I return home in July, and I start school at Carleton college in September.

Thank you, Margot!