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snorkeling in a stream2

Karlie Jeffers’s idea of business casual: waders and snorkeling gear or hiking boots.

Jeffers will graduate on Thursday, May 9, from the Hebert College of Agriculture with a major in wildlife and fisheries. She’ll spend the next few months working for the Tennessee Valley Authority surveying the species of fish in streams throughout Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. Then, if all goes as planned, she’ll be headed abroad for the Peace Corps in early 2020.

“I’ve loved Tennessee and Knoxville, but I’m also ready to see everything else,” Jeffers said. She aspires to a career that involves both international work and wildlife and fisheries.

Voted by her Alpha Chi Omega sorority sisters as “Most Likely to Win Survivor,” Jeffers muses that her college years have looked a lot like an outdoorsy reality show.

Looking back, though, she realizes her life experiences have prepared her for whatever adventures come next.

“I didn’t realize the dots had been connected until they were,” she said.

Originally from New Jersey, Jeffers’s father sold his part of a car dealership and moved the family to Tennessee in search of nature, tranquility, and a family-oriented lifestyle. They bought a 30-acre farm near Cookeville and began growing organic crops and raising goats, pigs, and chickens. With their farm nestled between Burgess Falls State Park and Rock Island State Park, the family opened an ice cream shop and restaurant on their property to cater to locals and visitors.

During her younger years, Jeffers spent her summers at the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger camps, learning about trees and animals.

She didn’t have a future plan in mind when she came to UT as a freshman.

Still exploring majors, Jeffers learned about a summer course called Stream Ecology.  She said it promised plenty of time outdoors, a chance to snorkel in Tennessee waterways, and the opportunity to “see lots of cool fish I’d never seen before.”

Not realizing it was a 400-level course and she’d be working alongside mostly seniors, she signed up for the summer after her freshman year. Before long, she was knee-deep in streams in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

By the end of the summer, she was hooked.

The next summer, she enrolled in a two-week UT study abroad course called Tropical Ecology, Conservation, and Field Methods in Belize. She learned about Belize’s history, the country’s conservation challenges, and how to conduct research in a tropical environment. Opting to stay in Belize for an additional month, she joined a Virginia Tech program that allowed her to live on an old coffee plantation and spend her days hiking through the rainforest to set up cameras to monitor the jaguar population.

The summer after her junior year, she interned at the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute where she studied the Laurel Dace, an endangered freshwater minnow indigenous to Tennessee. She examined the tiny earbones of the Tennessee Dace, a similar but not endangered fish, to determine its lifespan—information that will help ecologists develop a plan to preserve and grow the Laurel Dace population. She presented her work at state and regional fisheries conferences.

During her time at UT, Jeffers also engaged in a host of extracurricular activities: serving as treasurer for the UT Wildlife and Fisheries Society, the student chapter of the Wildlife Society and American Fisheries Society, and serving as a Herbert Ambassador, attending college fairs and working at Future Farmers of America and 4H events on campus to recruit future students for the Herbert College of Agriculture. She also traveled to Prague with the Clay and Debbie Jones Center for Leadership and Service to work with Middle Eastern refugees trying to get citizenship and asylum.

With her heart set on serving in the Peace Corps, Jeffers is one of the first students to complete UT’s Peace Corp Prep program, which started in April 2018. UT is the first school in the state to have the prep program and one of about 100 partner schools in the United States.

Through the program, students earn a certificate that involves coursework, hands-on experience, and professional development training.

Jeffers learned about the program from one of her faculty members, Adam Willcox, who also serves at the Peace Corps prep coordinator for UT.

While completing the program is no guarantee Jeffers will get an assignment, it will give her a definite advantage. Peace Corps Director Josephine Olsen, who was on hand for the official launch of UT’s program last year, told Jeffers that her participation showed initiative and dedication.

And whether it’s in a Tennessee stream or a village half way around the world, Jeffers knows she’s up for the challenge.

“It takes a hot minute to find your place,” she said. “But once you you’ve found it, you know it.”