By Emily Colacino

In the twelve years since I graduated from Youth Initiative High School I have many times found myself in unexpected situations, feeling grateful for the unique and well-rounded education I received and the ways in which it prepared me for the real world, equipping me with the tools I would need to not only function but to thrive.

The combination of a rigorous and engaging academic curriculum paired with endless educational opportunities outside of the classroom helped me develop not only a solid knowledge base but also an invaluable and varied skill set that has opened countless doors. Being given the responsibility, trust and creative liberty to make my education what I wanted and needed it to be encouraged me to develop a strong work ethic, interpersonal communication and leadership skills, critical thinking and self-motivation. These are life skills that have never failed me, and have helped me as an adult to pursue the ambitions I had as a student.

I never wanted a desk job. I wanted to be outside in the world, to use my hands and my brain. I wanted to be challenged, exploring my limitations and following opportunities that came my way. The self-assuredness and competency that YIHS cultivates helped me to be creative and brave enough to find an unconventional path where I could do all of those things.

I found the balance I needed in seasonal work and travel, much of which has its roots in experiences I had at YIHS. Learning to operate a tractor in agriculture class helped me gain a position on the field crew at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. Rock Climbing during YIHS camping trips not only introduced me to my favorite sport but later in life led me to work as a guide with the same instructor that taught me. Traveling to Guatemala as a senior inspired me to take a year long internship in Ecuador and and later travel through Spain and Central America where I became a certified Dive Master and eventually moved to Hawaii to work with stingrays. After college I packed up my motorcycle and rode to California where, drawing on experience from my senior project focusing on invasive species, I began working for the Forest Service as a botanist. I moved on to wildland firefighting on a hotshot crew where the confidence I gained at YIHS was instrumental in my success as both a rookie and the only woman on the crew.

Later I worked for the National Science Foundation spending four seasons in Antarctica and Greenland doing everything from carpentry to logistics to operating heavy equipment. My favorite position was working as a field coordinator in remote field camps for scientific research. The years of food and nutrition classes definitely helped when I was cooking for a dozen hungry researchers! My time spent as an elected student representative at YIHS helped me to efficiently manage both people and logistics with confidence and care. Those same organizational skills came in handy again when I worked as the operations manager for a small company organizing and facilitating multi-day mountain bike trips of 100 riders in the back-country of Colorado and Utah. Currently I work for a project building and launching large balloons into the stratosphere which transmit LTE service and can be used to restore service and help with rescue efforts after natural disasters. My initial experience with disaster relief and preparedness came when I volunteered after Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi with fellow YIHS students.

I find that when I share about my career and lifestyle, folks tend to get excited about the facts of what I do and where I have been because it is an unusual story to some. For me though, what I am most proud of is how I got there, not what I did. Countless times, I have been nervous or downright scared when I jumped into something new, but no matter how unprepared I may have felt, I have always known that I have the tools and skills to adapt and learn and make it work.

I am grateful to be able to say yes to opportunities that come my way, even when I am intimidated I trust my instincts and believe in myself. I am equally grateful to be open minded and curious, to be able to communicate and find common ground with people from all walks of life as well as find and cultivate community just about anywhere. Learning these skills early in life enabled me to lead this unlikely lifestyle that is exactly right for me.

I have Youth Initiative to thank for helping shape me into who I am and letting me discover what I am capable of. I am comfortable and confident in myself as a human, and growing into that knowledge was the most valuable education I could ask for.

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