February 9, 2018 | Chapel Hill, North Carolina | 9:00am
On a cold, rainy day in January of 2006, I received the best email of my life.
"Dear Ms. Parker,
Congratulations! It our pleasure to offer you admission to..."
I didn't finish the sentence before I burst into tears. Like many high school seniors, I had been stressed (really stressed) about college applications. Emotion flooded through me—relief, gratitude, and affirmation—I had been accepted (early! with a scholarship!) into my first-choice university.
On that day, I had no idea I would dedicate not just the next four years, but the entire next decade of my life, to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The School of Media and Journalism
Two years later, as a sophomore at UNC, I sat in the auditorium of Carroll Hall listening to Rich Beckman give his farewell address to hundreds of journalism students and dozens of faculty members. I didn't know at the time that he was a legend at the school—the father of the multimedia program. I had never taken one of his classes, and now that he was leaving, I never would. But his closing words left a permanent mark on the trajectory of my career (and life.)
"If you're in this school, and you're not taking multimedia classes," he said firmly, "you're wasting your time."
When registration for classes opened later in the semester, I switched from the editorial track to the multimedia track. Being a writer wasn't enough—I was going to become a photographer and videographer too.
Chad Stevens and Pat Davison patiently coached me through the fundamentals of compelling visual storytelling: how to frame a shot, how to ask good questions, and how to listen. I worked alongside incredibly talented young photographers — Andrew Dye, Margaret Cheatham Williams, Katherine Vance, Courtney Potter, Justin Spinks, Caitlyn Greene, and Eli Sinkus — just to name a few.
Lois Boynton made me think hard about ethical questions in journalism. She also made me laugh a lot. Ryan Thornburg taught me how to write like a journalist, and offered excellent career advice. Paul Cuadros opened my eyes to Latino issues in North Carolina, encouraged me to keep studying Spanish, and helped me get my first job.
The College of Arts & Sciences
"Your references were outstanding," Dee Reid told me on my first day as the multimedia intern at the UNC College of Arts & Sciences. I smiled, grateful that my J School professors had been so willing to vouch for me.
After four years as a student, I thought I knew everything there was to know about Carolina. I spent the next year realizing how much I still had to learn. UNC was (and is) more than just students and faculty and classes and grades. The people here are a beautiful mix of activists, musicians, scientists, artists, and each of them has a story to tell.
One day, while filming at the Center for the Study of the American South, I found this quote from Bill Friday:
The one thing I've learned doing this kind of work is: listen.
Be quiet and listen. They'll have a great story. And I have yet to meet a human being after 2,000 interviews that doesn't have a story.
You've got one. I have one, and that's the humanity with the whole world we're in.
I still think about those words every time I sit down to conduct an interview.
A few months later, when the College sent me to Morehead City to film at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS), I thought I've made it. My job is sending me to the beach! What more could I want?
As it turned out, a lot more.
The following year I would apply for another position at UNC that would not just send me to the beach regularly—it would send me to beaches all over the world.
The Institute of Marine Sciences
"Do you want to hold one?"
On a boat about 40 miles off the coast of North Carolina, I was spending my morning filming four marine scientists as they released a dozen rehabilitated sea turtles into the ocean.
"Yes," I said. "Absolutely."
I put down my camera long enough to pick up a juvenile Kemp Ridley, lean over the side of the boat, and gently place it in the water. I held my breath as I watched the tiny turtle spread its flippers and swim into the vast expanse of dark blue water, struck by the tenacity of such a small creature.
After the last turtle dipped below the surface, the scientists began donning their scuba equipment. "You should get certified to scuba dive," one said. "Then you could film us working underwater."
"Yeah. I should do that."
That was June of 2014. In October that year, I made another trip to IMS to document undergraduate students doing field work in the Rachel Carson Reserve. I spent the whole day on a boat filming two young, passionate women as they collected oysters. The conditions were perfect—abundant sunshine, blue skies, and a warm breeze. When we took a break, I looked up from our work in the marsh to gaze at the wild ponies grazing on Shackleford Island in the distance. On the way home, we encountered a huge pod of dolphins.
Smiling at the sun, I thought It doesn't get any better than this.
And then, just three months later, it did.
The Department of Geological Sciences
“It’s called tephra,” Jonathan Lees said as I dumped gritty volcanic ash out of my boots.
Standing at the base of the Llaima volcano in southern Chile, the chair of Department of Geological Sciences walked me (literally) through the types of pyroclastic material that stratovolcanoes produce during eruptions. He explained the intricate process for recording seismic activity, and why he does research in that part of the world.
For the next ten days, I took photos, filmed, and listened intently. Working on a snow-covered volcano in South America was unlike anything I had ever done, and I found the bizarre beauty of it mesmerizing.
Just as holding a sea turtle in my hands gave me a personal connection to the world of marine science, working on a volcano instilled in me a profound appreciation for geology and geophysics. I also got a crash course in what it takes to be a competent team member on a big expedition. I didn't have the technical gear or alpine climbing experience that some of the researchers possessed, but I was still so stoked to be there.
"I think I want to do a mountaineering course," I told one of the scientists, as we slid down a scree field after installing a seismometer.
"You should," he said. "You should go to the Cascades."
"Yeah. I should do that."
I didn't know it at the time, but working in wild, remote locations was about to become a regular part of my life.
The Galápagos Science Center
"Did you see that sea lion??" I said, grabbing the boat ladder. "It was massive—it swam right under us!"
As I hauled myself out of the cold, choppy waters at Punta Pitt, I handed my Nauticam underwater camera rig to Steve Walsh, co-director of the Galápagos Science Center. Once I was back on board, Steve smiled broadly, clapped me on the back, and said, "you're a badass!"
In that moment, I thought of my hours of scientific diver training and the countless pool sessions I'd spent practicing underwater photography. "Thanks Steve," I said sheepishly. "I'm working on earning that title."
"You know, we could really use a full-time communications person," he said. "We have to get the funding of course, but we need to hire someone like you down here."
"Let me know when you post that position," I said, grinning. "I will definitely apply."
The Office of Research Communications
If you add it all up, UNC has sent me on five international expeditions, and across the country to places like DC, New Orleans, New Mexico, and California, as well as research sites all over North Carolina.
Every trip involved varying degrees of planning, funding, and logistics—and none of them would have happened if it weren't for my boss (and my biggest advocate) Layla Dowdy.
The frequent travel has always been the sexiest part of my job, and without a doubt, some of the best experiences of my life have occurred during my ventures to document research in different corners of the world. But I've had just as many incredible experiences right here in Chapel Hill, doing things like film a geophysicist building a solar balloon or interview a future NASA astronaut
No matter where I am—in the office or on a dirt road in South America—no matter what I'm doing—filming sharks or discussing volcanic eruptions or writing about organic chemistry, my thought process is always the same: this is my job! I can't believe this is my job!
The University of the People
When I tell people what I do for a living, I sometimes get open-mouthed stares and disbelief in response. "Wow. That's your job? How did you get that gig??"
Good question. My position here at UNC has evolved as I've grown as a person. But I believe all these incredible experiences have less to do with me, and much more to do with the network of Carolina faculty, staff, and students who have supported me, and pushed me over the years.
To many, Carolina is the university of the people. To me, it's the university of the best people I've ever known.
It’s Jonathan Lees and Danny Bowman and every geoscientist that has spent countless hours patiently explaining the forces of our planet to me.
It’s every marine scientist I’ve accompanied in the field—there are far too many to name—but I’m honored to know all of you. Please keep fighting the good fight for our oceans.
It’s Dee Reid and Kim Spurr. Thank you for giving me my first job, and for continuing to be two of my biggest cheerleaders.
It’s Kerry Irish, my go-to comrade in all things #scicomm. Thank you for your infinite hospitality, and for giving me so many opportunities to document marine science in action.
It’s Layla Dowdy, my incredible boss. Thank you for always having my back and believing in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself.
It’s Alyssa LaFaro, Corina Cudebec, and Darren Abrecht, my co-workers in the Office of Research Communications. It is a pleasure to spend every day with you. Thank you for holding down the fort every time I was out of the office.
It's all the awesome folks at the Institute of Marine Sciences, the Institute for the Environment, and the Galápagos Science Center—thank you for trusting me to tell your stories, and for facilitating so many epic adventures.
It's the entire staff at the Carolina Alumni Review, the University Gazette, and the hard-working team at unc.edu—thank you for publishing so many of my stories over the years.
There is truth in the cliché: without all of these people, I would not be where I am today. But it goes beyond that: I would not be who I am.
Today is my last day at UNC, and my heart is full.
From student to alumnus to staff member — I have a resume that might as well be printed in Carolina blue ink. This university connected me to inspiring people, sent me to exotic far-away places, and introduced me to experiences that forced me to become a more intrepid, independent and resilient person.
UNC-Chapel is my alma mater and the institution that kick-started my career — but it’s so much more than a university or place of employment.
It’s a part of me.