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Breaking Boundaries in Conservation


This piece comes to us from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). To honor Black History Month, WCS and Nature are sharing five stories of nature and conservation.

Melissa joining one of the first Wild Encounter sessions at the Bronx Zoo—where visitors now have the opportunity to meet with fennec foxes and more. Photo credit: Melissa Fenton/WCS.

Growing up in a Caribbean household, my sisters and I would always hear stories of the struggles our parents and grandmother endured to get to the United States to make a better life. Even then, job opportunities for them in the States were limited. Discrimination has been ever-present—be it on a personal level from microaggressions and stereotyping, or on a corporate level, suffering the “racial pay gap” and the glass ceiling.

Due to this, we were raised to have a strong work ethic, stand up for what we deserve, and do whatever it takes to succeed in the career we love. Complementing this foundation of self-determination, my mother inspired my love for animals and nature from a very young age. Born and raised in the beautiful island of Jamaica, she was never without an animal companion growing up—including countless pet dogs over the years, along with the occasional pet parrot.

My mother kept this tradition alive with my family, ensuring my sisters and I valued animals and their well-being. Naturally, my childhood dream was to become a veterinarian. I pursued this career path through my undergraduate studies but ultimately decided otherwise. As much as I love the mission of a veterinarian, conducting surgical procedures no longer aligned with my interests. Not knowing what other careers focused on animals, I felt disoriented and uncertain.

Melissa attended a donor site visit to Manaus, Brazil, where WCS works to conserve intact forests and freshwater ecosystems across the Amazon Basin. Photo credit: Melissa Fenton/WCS.

However, I continued pursuing my passion, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology, followed by a Masters in Animal Behavior and Conservation. Without a professional mentor guiding me during this stage of my educational career, I investigated all related career possibilities, charting my own path forward. During my Master’s program, my interests broadened to include global wildlife conservation initiatives and the issues currently facing our planet.

Additionally, I gained direct experience in New York and in the field—conducting odor discrimination trials with tigers at the Bronx Zoo for my thesis, as well as studying the social behaviors of wild dolphins in Bimini, The Bahamas for some of my coursework.

While searching for positions within conservation organizations, I was introduced to the field of nonprofit fundraising. I was thrilled at the thought of applying my knowledge and skills to raise money for causes I am deeply passionate about! In my first development position at a small nonprofit called Panthera, which focuses on wild cat conservation, I learned the basics of fundraising and supported all types of giving areas.

Along with other WCS colleagues, Melissa joined the March for Science in New York City on Earth Day 2017. Photo credit: Melissa Fenton/WCS.

In time, I seized the opportunity to join the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) as a Development Associate, giving me the ability to specialize in corporate relations and global conservation efforts. I continue to work with field colleagues in over 60 countries to develop funding opportunities for a wide range of initiatives, including species conservation, protecting vulnerable ecosystems, and advancing nature-based climate solutions.

During my six years, I have managed many complex donor relationships and secured major grants from corporations. I have also pursued a number of professional development opportunities, such as earning a Certificate in Corporate Sustainability from NYU Stern School of Business, which has provided me with an elevated understanding of corporate environmental and social goals. After hard work and commitment, I have ascended to Associate Director of Corporate Engagement at WCS.

Melissa is Associate Director of Corporate Engagement at WCS. Photo credit: Melissa Fenton/WCS.

As I reflect on the fulfillment I experience in my career, I realize the work ethic and determination instilled in me by my family has been essential to my success. My parents—my biggest supporters—feel their struggles were justified. At a time when ethnic representation in my field is limited, I am especially proud to have found what feels like my personal career path, doing work that I am passionate about.

Knowing how daunting the future can be, I hope my story gives others the hope and the motivation to persevere for the success they deserve.


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