By Collin Shamley
I wanted to use this platform to spotlight a black woman exceling in a field that they’re not commonly found in. I had the privilege of interviewing Sheridan Alford, a 4th year student at UGA majoring in Fisheries and Wildlife with an emphasis in Wildlife in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.
Sheridan has a love for nature is passionate about educating the youth one day. She stresses the importance of education about nature and the environment. Sheridan believes everyone should have access to learn about wildlife, not just younger people. We discussed everything from school and career goals, to hunting ethics, to personal role models.
Representation across career fields matters. There might be a black kid who is really into the outdoors but doesn’t see a future for them in this field. It’s important for young people to see others who look like them exceling in something they might enjoy.
Q: What does your major entail?
A: Most of our courses have labs. I think one thing that differs from most other labs is that we’re literally always outside. If you have a lab, you’re going to be outside, which is the whole point of fisheries and wildlife. You can’t really learn about wildlife without being out there. Right now I’m taking classes like habitat management, which I learn about grasses and plants and trees and how they help the habitat of wildlife; but also their human uses. I also take wildlife techniques, (something you’d take) if you want to go into trapping animals. Sometimes you might need to capture an animal to do research, if they need medical assistance. Learning how to do that is different for every animal. It’s really just classes that all around encompass how to best do your job when managing for wildlife or forest resources, or the outdoors in general.
Q: It sounds like you stay busy.
A; It’s definitely a lot. They try to break it down. Within the one Warnell school you can be a fisheries major, a Wildlife major (I’m Wildlife). You can be a Forestry major, Resources, or Recreational Tourism (major).
Q: What made you want to be a Wildlife major?
A: Originally I wanted to be a vet. I was in the college of Ag when I first got here at UGA. I was an Animal Science major for a year. In my second semester freshman year, I took a class. I think it was called Intro to Natural Resources. I thought it was really interesting. I always liked the outdoors kind of deep down, like a childhood memory. So I took that class and I wanted to figure out how I could combine my love of animals with my appreciation for nature, outdoors, and the environment. That’s why I ended up in Warnell and I’ve loved it ever since.
Q: What career would you imagine for yourself?
A: What I want to do is endangered species habitat restoration and education. What that looks like is you can either work for a department like the Georgia Department of Natural Resources or the US Fish and Wildlife Services or some private companies. Working with somebody and if there is an endangered species within the land that they own, you manage that species, watch it’s population, make recommendations on how to better the population, or how to increase, or if there is too many, which is a good problem to have if they are an endangered species, relocations are sometimes involved. It really would just be managing land for a specific species.
Q: Do you have any species in mind that you have a particular interest in?
A: I don’t have a specific animal. I like birds. I like reptiles. In Georgia one of our endangered species is a gopher tortoise. There’s a lot of work to be done and a lot people are doing to increase numbers and make sure they have a habitat. The gopher tortoise, the red cockaded woodpecker is another species here in Georgia. If I stay in Georgia I’ll definitely be working with one of those two. But there are a lot of others. There are a lot of endangered Salamander species.
Q: What’s an issue pertaining to your field?
A: One as a whole is connectivity between different departments. The fish a wildlife services is federal versus the state Georgia Department of Natural Resources. And then private landowners: A lot of the land in Georgia is privately owned, something like 90% of it. It’s really the agreement between all these different factors, on the best ways to manage the land. People don’t always agree.
One of my solutions for that would be communication, but also making a standard form for some of these things. Like what, is the proper mediation for growing sedge grass or just a standard; because right now there aren’t standards for a lot of things. People just do whatever they think. That goes with Science. You do what you think is best. Sometimes it ends up not being best years down the road, but it’s always a learning process.
A more personal issue would be diversity within my field. I think there’s a growing ratio of men to women. But as far as diversity as in people of color, within the field itself, it’s also growing. I’m not the only black person in any of my classes, which is really cool to say now. I’m a senior now and there are some new incoming classes that are two or three. Just diversity and educating minority youth on the joys of outdoors. I know there are lot of stereotypes. Like “black people don’t go outside”. A lot of adults don’t take the time to just sit outside and just breathe. That’s why I like my major, because I find nature peaceful.
Q: What factors prevent more people of color or black women representation within your field?
A: One of them for me would be exposure. Just knowing that it’s a major, which I think is an issue not just for minority women but everybody. I think a lot of people know about ecology but there’s the actual fieldwork side of that, which is Warnell.
You can do this as a career. Everybody always says “Oh, you going to be a park ranger.” I don’t think anybody in my college wants to be a park ranger. That’s not the only think we do. Another thing I touched on was just the stereotype of going outside. I don’t know where the stereotype maybe came from. I don’t consider caring about the environment to be a negative thing. We all originated outdoors.
Nature is very interested but you wouldn’t know that if you never went outside. As a kid you go out there and you chase bugs or you play in the dirt and stuff like that. But it seems that as you grow older somehow the outside shifts from being fun to being nasty. The connotation that being outdoorsy means you have to go camping. I’ve never been camping but that has nothing to do with the fact that this is my major. You don’t have to do the most to appreciate.
Q: Do you ever feel like you have certain conflicts with professors, superiors, and other peers?
A: In that regard I don’t feel like I have to act different or do anything different, at least in my college. I feel very included. Nobody treats me any better or worse because I’m the only black person in there. My supervisor at my internship is very understanding of the value of being a black woman in my field because they know there aren’t that many. For example, I had a meeting with my advisor for grads cool. He was talking about Assistantships. He said don’t go anywhere that doesn’t offer you an assistantship because you’re too good for that.
It’s one of those majors that we’re not talking about black issues or white issues all day. We’re talking about nature. Any question you have can be applied to anybody in the room. There isn’t room for being prejudice or singling a person out. You’re all in there to better the environment.
Q: Do you ever feel like you have to prove yourself?
A: Now that I’m in the college I feel comfortable just because I’ve been in there since day one. When I first got in there nobody knew anything. It wasn’t like I was behind. No I didn’t hunt when I came in and I’ve never been camping but some other people have. If you’re behind you catch up. If you’re ahead you help somebody else out.
Do I ever feel like I have to prove myself? It depends on the situation. I some instances I would purposely say something that I know applies to my field to a superior. Just sprinkle it on there just to show them if there was any doubt we’re on the same level. Once you establish you’re no better than me and I’m no better than you, we can get some work done. As my supervisor would say, you demand the same level of training as a white male would.
Q: Do you have any black professors professors?
A: No. I don’t think there are any in my college. There are people of color. Dr. Hernandez is Hispanic and she does a lot with wildlife disease. Black professors, no. It’s definitely one of those colleges where you walk down the hall and they have all the pictures of the past faculty. They’re all white men. I do have women teachers though. Somebody asked me the other day, “How is it? Are you comfortable being in a room full of white people?” You have to be comfortable with it. If this is my passion and this is what I want to do, and this is what my field looks like, you can’t be uncomfortable with it. Once you understand your value and you know that you’re up there with them, keep it pushing.
Q: What are your short-term and long-term goals?
A: Short-term goals are: getting a job. I plan of going to grad school to get my Masters. Right now I have my eye on agencies. I intern with the US Fisheries and Wildlife services. If I could get a job with them or the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and getting into habitat management and get into wildlife management, that’s my short term goal.
Long–term goals are: really to make a difference in education of minorities in what I do. My ideal setup would be for half of my life do wildlife management, be really great at it or really just knowledgeable about it. In the second half of my life, I want to use what I learn to educate the youth and educate minorities. I say youth but it’s not just the youth. My goal is not to force someone to like the outdoors because that’s just not going to happen.
Q: What are some things you do outside of school?
A: So I have a YouTube channel. It’s called BeanieJean. I just do whatever I want. I know a lot of people have a YouTube channel for hair or for vlogs. If I feel like making a vlog one day I’ll make a vlog. If I feel like making a hair tutorial or makeup tutorial I’ll do that. It’s really just my expression of whatever I feel like doing.
I like to paint. Painting has always been a thing throughout my life. It’s just something that I like to do that’s calming.
Within my college we have Wild Turkey Federation. They have partnered with different agencies and their goal is to increase the number of hunters. Hunting has naturally decreased as urbanization has increased. They decided they were going to start with college students, and first of all, teach us about hunting, what it is; you know, the ethics behind it so you really understand it. We obviously went through training. We had to get our license, so I have a hunting license. But then their second part was giving people actual opportunities. You can teach someone how to do something but if they never get to exercise it they’re going to forget about it.
We go on different hunts as the seasons come up. Our first hunt was a squirrel hunt. That was in in the winter (last year). Then we went on a dove hunt in September. The next one is a deer hunt, which is a super big deal because all those other animals are really tiny, and a deer is huge. I don’t know if I’m going to actually shoot anything on that one, but it’ll be a cool experience just to be out there.
I could go on a on and on about the ethics of hunting because a lot of people misunderstand it.
Q: Well, what’s your perception of hunting?
A: People that are against hunting think you’re just going out there to kill animals for the fun of killing animals, which I personally don’t think is cool. I don’t think you should go out and kill things just because. So what I’ve learned about hunters from actually talking to hunters and also being out there it’s a lot more than that. Hunters know more about the environment and the habitat than anyone else.
If you’re going to want to hunt something, you have to know how its population size is run and you have to know you can’t kill too many or it going to decrease the population. You won’t have anything to hunt. Hunters are honestly the best land managers. But there’s also a code of ethics to hunting. You don’t shoot any animal if there’s going to be pain and suffering. You can’t shoot it if you don’t have a good shot. Lets say you shoot a deer and you hit it in the leg, then that’s unethical. You have to go find the animal. You can’t just let it run off because it’s going to be injured for however long.
A lot of the commercial hunting people see all the time, there are people who do it to get antlers on their wall; but all that meat 90 percent of the time goes to homeless shelters. There are people who go hunting to feed their family. I know a guy who didn’t go a grocery store all year. They kill like two or three deer and he just has the meet in his fridge. If you if think about it that meat is 10 million times better than whatever you’re buying at the grocery store. It’s grass fed, it’s organic, non-GMO. All that stuff that people want. You can’t get any better than the wild.
Hunting is not just going outside, killing something, and taking it back. You literally sit outside for hours, and you watch the sun come up, and you hear the birds and you hear coyotes in the woods waking up in the morning. You’re just sitting outside in nature. I think that’s my favorite part about it. It’s not you and nature. It’s nature and you just happen to be there.
Q: Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
A: I hope to be a well-known wildlife habitat manager within whatever state I end up in, or maybe a well-known manager of a certain species. Like, If you want to know something about gopher tortoises you go to Sheridan because she knows everything about it; well-known in something but also someone that has done a lot for the community that she’s in. I just want to impact people’s lives with the things I that like to do. Have my apartment with my couple out dogs. I might be married by then.
Q: Who are your role models?
A: One would be my mom. She’s the whole reason I like the outdoors to begin with. Literally every holiday we would go to some random place like Missouri and she would always make us go on a hike; or we would have to go to some kind of museum. We just went on a family trip and went “glamping” which is like glamour camping, where they have a tent for you and everything. She literally forces us to go outside.
And she’s a big advocate for recycling. I’ll never forget the story about when she told this grown man to pick his trash off the ground. My mom is a perfect example of someone who appreciates outdoors but isn’t “outdoorsy.” She’s a middle school teacher, always has been a middle school teacher. When we were kids we definitely got locked out of the house during the summer and you just had to play. There was no other option.
When I was like 7, we went to the public library. We parked and another car parked next to us. They got out the car at the same time that we got out the car. The guy on my mom’s side put his McDonald’s bag on the ground and then walked off. My mom was like, “excuse me sir, can you pick up your trash?” And the guy walked halfway to his thing at this point. She was was like “can you pick up your trash from the side of the curb?” Of course he looked at her like she was crazy. But she kept looking at him like “so you gonna come pick up this trash or nah?” And he did. He came and picked up the trash and put it in the trashcan. I will forever remember that, just for the simple fact of being bold about your environment. She was the one who encouraged my grandma to recycle. You don’t have to be a wildlife science major to make an impact or to care about the environment or about the animals around you.
Another person that I look up to is my supervisor at the US Fisheries and Wildlife Services, Tamara Johnson. She’s another black woman who has the same dream and has made it. I just look up to her. She’s doing what I either hope to do. You can look at her and she “She made it. I can make it.” Her influencer would be Na’Taki Osbourne-Jelks.
She teaches at Agnes Scott now. But back in the day she started an environmental club and does a lot with minority students, in high school, elementary school, and college to get them outside. She’s like my education role model. She’s been to the White House and everything.
I love talking about my major to be honest. It’s definitely my passion. I think I realized that last year when I was in North Carolina and we were in a cabin in the woods. I was just walking a trail and I was like “this is really what I love to do.”