Kristal Miller holds a unique record at the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation. While more Mason students are taking advantage of the immersive, residential semester, and some students have even returned to participate in a second semester at the facility in Front Royal, Kristal is the first and only student to have completed three semesters at SMSC.
Kristal describes herself as a non-traditional student. She began her higher ed experience at a community college and spent 10 years studying part time to earn her undergraduate degree from Mason. But according to Kristal, SMSC is where she fell in love with learning.
When she was ready to transfer to Mason, Kristal initially planned to study accounting. She quickly discovered, however, that her love for being outdoors and her true interests aligned better studying biology, so she switched majors. In an Ecology and Evolution course, Kristal learned about SMSC from her professor, Dr. Lorelei Crerar. The possibility of using the credits earned at SMSC to add a minor to her degree was appealing.
Kristal’s first SMSC semester began with some trepidation. She was shy and quiet, unaccustomed to life in a dorm and collaborating with other students as part of a cohort. By the time the semester ended, although she’d made what have become life-long friendships, Kristal didn’t feel as though she’d taken full advantage of the opportunity. She decided to go back for a second semester to fulfill some upper level credit requirements, and that’s when the full experience fell into place.
Kristal spent time exploring the Front Royal area, determined to enjoy everything the surrounding Shenandoah mountains had to offer. On weekends she and other students enjoyed kayaking, canoeing, and hiking; they found the local community friendly and welcoming. Kristal developed close bonds not only with the other students, but with her professors as well. Kristal describes the faculty as invaluable mentors who “really care about the students and the experiences they are having at SMSC.”
Knowing she’d be the first person to attend a third semester, Kristal selected the Endangered Species Conservation track just for the sake of going back to SMSC. She relished the hands-on experience, particularly the extensive field work. Spatial Ecology, learning and using the “R” coding language, and research in the GIS lab on site where she worked alongside scientists on the scimitar-horned oryx reintroduction project were some of the highlights of Kristal’s SMSC semesters. All of this experience, she says, gives her and her fellow students a leg-up in their careers.
For all her enthusiasm about SMSC, Kristal acknowledges the challenges that some students face when considering an SMSC semester. It can be difficult to commit to a semester away, especially for students who hold jobs as they pursue undergraduate degrees. There’s also the added expense for students who, like Kristal, commute to campus and aren’t accustomed to paying room and board. She’s adamant, however, that the experience was worth it, three times over. “Ultimately,” she says, “I didn’t want to leave SMSC.” Kristal has stayed in touch with students from all three semesters, some of whom have become her best friends.
Kristal graduated from Mason in May 2018 with a BS in Biology and a minor in Applied Conservation Studies. She’s considering pursuing a master’s degree in the future and hopes to one day realize her dream job of studying the impacts of climate change and habitat loss on giraffe movement. In the meantime, this summer she will be working with Robert Barrett, SMSC’s Assistant Director of Recruitment and Outreach, attending orientations and assisting with outreach efforts. After three semesters, Kristal is just the person to spread the word about all that SMSC has to offer.
For students embarking on their first SMSC semester, Kristal offers three suggestions for a successful, life-changing experience: First, take advantage of your free time. Be sure to explore all that the Front Royal area has to offer. Second, don’t miss the sunsets from the vantage point of Racetrack Hill—they’re glorious! And finally: network, network, network!