Opportunities come up in some pretty weird places.
You could say I took the scenic route to starting my early career in archaeology. I wasn’t a great student during my undergrad. I started off in college thinking I’d be an environmental engineer. You know, stop anthropogenic climate change and save the world? Well, that didn’t work out so well. I found out the hard way that I’m absolute rubbish with math and chemistry – things that you kinda need to be an engineer. I was pretty frustrated and unhappy, and what’s more is that I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself. I just had no focus whatsoever. So I dropped out of college. I went to the Appalachian mountains and worked as a wilderness backpacking guide. Then, when the season ended, I stayed in the region since I had some friends up there and I really enjoyed living in the mountains. I bounced around minimum wage food service jobs for a while and came to really loathe it. Dropping out of college was the best decision I could have made for myself. No, really, it was. I’m the kind of person who needs to learn by experiencing things firsthand, and I also need to be fully committed to something if I’m going to do it. After about a year of intense personal growth and learning, I really had the fire to go back to school, and at the urging of my parents, I started classes at a different university – this time up in the mountains where I was happy. I still had no idea what I wanted to do for a major, or later a career, but I came in as an undecided major and took whatever courses peaked my interest. It was a good place to be in life.
I didn’t really know archaeology was a thing people could do. I had been interested in Native American and early human cultures since my childhood, when we traveled all over the States and stopped in places like Bozeman, Montana to see mammoth bones and stone projectile points in some tiny, random museum on the roadside. I had two professors who grabbed my interest in archaeology and sparked that passion and focus I had been missing all along. I finally had something I was fully committed in working towards – a career in archaeology. Over the following years I went through a lot more personal, academic, and professional growth. Not all of it was fun, though. In fact, some of it was actually quite painful.
My undergrad program required field school credits, and the university-run field school was on a brief hiatus when I needed to complete the credits, so I signed up with a field school in Belize. My first time really doing fieldwork was also my first time traveling outside North America. I’ll spare you the details, but I was hooked. I stayed on with that program for three consecutive field seasons and learned a ton about the Maya, and archaeological method and theory as well.
However, my slow start in college really held me back when I was approaching graduation and looking into grad schools and CRM jobs. I kept applying to grad schools for years, but I was rejected by about a dozen programs. One of the departments had the courtesy to write back and tell me they questioned my commitment to the field of archaeology. I was in one of my last anthropology courses of my undergrad, a forensic taphonomy class, when I told my professor about the rejection letter. She had become one of my mentors, and she was furious about it. How could anyone question my commitment to something I had gone above and beyond for in the field? Much less, looking at my transcripts, even though my GPA was lackluster from a rough start early on, I had quickly excelled in my anthropology courses. My forensic taphonomy professor helped me turn rejection into motivation, and suggested readings and a course of action to beef up my CV. I graduated and off I went into the “real world”.
I moved from Appalachia to join my parents who had moved out west while I was in college. It was 2008, and the economy was in a death spiral. Unemployment hit the Pacific Northwest especially hard, and I couldn’t even find work as a barista (which I had tons of experience as). More than anything, I wanted to work in CRM where I was out west, but it just wasn’t happening. Hardly anyone was hiring, and the few jobs that were hiring required experience I simply didn’t have. I went back to Belize as a volunteer since it was my only break, and I needed to prove myself. That’s when things got weird.
My hard work in Belize had paid off in spades. I was offered a full ride to a Master’s program with a respected Mayanist. I was skeptical, and more than just a little intimidated at the prospect of going down the path of a Mayanist. Was I competitive enough, or even skilled enough, to make it in such a tough field? I had a lot to stew on that summer. Then one night, when I was in a bar in San Ignacio, Belize that archaeologists frequented, I met another American guy who was a bit older than me. We got to talking and I lamented the fact that I would be returning home without any good job prospects. He reached into his wallet, pulled out a business card, and said, “well if you want a job when you get back to the States, drop me a line”. Turned out, he was a vice president of a large CRM firm in the southeast. We were a few drinks deep, so I asked if we could have that conversation when we weren’t drinking, and he invited me to join him and his family for dinner after work the next day up at his hotel. We hammered out the details, and a couple months later I moved back across the continent. That full ride offer? I decided to turn it down. It was really difficult to make that choice, but I knew it was the right one because I still wasn’t ready to commit to grad school. I especially couldn’t commit to doing my thesis research on someone else’s project; I needed to be able to focus on something for myself. I don’t regret being honest enough with myself to realize that.
I worked for that CRM firm for almost six years, and that guy from the bar and his wife (I’m deliberately omitting their names, as well as the company name, because the firm has a policy against engaging media, but if you dig deep enough you’ll figure it all out) came to be some of the best mentors, colleagues, and friends I could have ever hoped for. I quickly took on more responsibilities and transitioned into the role of a crew chief, and then I was coached to go get a Master’s degree. I applied to a few schools and found a good fit for a grad program. I shifted gears and went in a totally new direction to study Paleolithic archaeology in Portugal for my thesis research. I continued to work in CRM whenever I had time to spare during grad school, and later more opportunities came from this valuable connection I had made one night in a bar thousands of miles away. Now, Andee and I both volunteer with an educational non-profit group, American Foreign Academic Research (AFAR), during the summer back in Belize. This has been an incredible chance to do outreach and education, and build the next generation of archaeologists with an amazingly talented group of young people.
My slow start in school, and all the pitfalls I encountered in my early career, are what drive me to give back – to help others gain that focus and passion that brought me into the field of archaeology, and brought me so many opportunities.
Was that rejection letter I received eight years ago wrong in questioning my commitment to the field? Maybe they knew me better than I knew myself at the time, just by looking at my CV and transcript, but they understandably weren’t ready to take a risk on an applicant that was still working out from a rocky start. Almost a decade later, though, hard work and an openness to opportunities helped build a pretty stacked resume that certainly isn’t holding me back anymore.
Always be grinding.
Archaeology • Undergrad Guides
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