A Lifetime of Experiences in a Few Short Years

Hello! For those who don’t know me, my name is Dominique Papa and I am a Colby-Sawyer College alumna graduate, class of 2016. I graduated with a biology degree and minored in studio art to pursue my creative mindset and love of the environment and the animals within. I also played on the CSC Women’s Soccer team from 2012-2016, when we won our first three NAC championships. Colby-Sawyer College will always be a big part of my growth because it has brought me worldwide, allowing me to pursue my dream.

So here is my story…

After graduating, I did not have a job lined up due to many travels. Within eight hours of graduating, I flew to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to watch my twin brother Dylan graduate, also as a biology major at Nova Southeastern University. After one week there, I traveled with my family on a vacation to Sedona, Arizona, for the seventh time, to mountain bike the Sedona mountains and enjoy the heat. I was still a few weeks out before starting my study abroad; therefore, I decided to continue my travels west to California, where my sister, Brittany, and her girlfriend, Kelsey, recently moved to San Diego. Not only was this my first time in California, but my first time touching the Pacific Ocean, seeing California sea lions and going to the famous San Diego Zoo. My most memorable animals at the zoo were the anteaters because I never realized how big they were. A week later, I headed home for two weeks to sleep off the fun and inevitably unpack from college. This was only the beginning of my travels; I had two months of study abroad ahead of me, since I was four credits short from receiving my degree. Before graduating, I decided to end my college career studying marine biology on a mostly deserted island in Turks and Caicos while also advancing my scuba diving skills needed for my biology career; a life-changing study abroad experience.

The program is called the School for Field Studies (SFS); they were presenting in our Ivey Building for biology students. Colby-Sawyer College partnered with SFS because they are dedicated to finding sustainable solutions by exploring the ecological and social dimensions of complex environmental problems through field-based learning and research. I specifically went to the Turks and Caicos field station on South Caicos, which allowed 30 students from over the USA to study marine protected areas, ecology, climate change, coastal management, ocean acidification, marine conservation, sustainable tourism and fisheries practices. Each month varied, but our primary purpose was to look at sustainable development strategies for the Turks and Caicos Islands on both a local and global scale. My first month was specifically monitoring and managing Tropical Marine Ecosystems, where we learned the taxonomy of 90 different fish, seagrass and mangrove species every week for a total of 270 identifications while measuring and recording coral density and bleaching with the Coral Watch – Coral Health Chart. Then month two, specified in applied Marine Research Techniques, identifying critical problems affecting the health of coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove forests that surround the island. We got the opportunity to investigate illegal sharking by routinely checking locals’ catches at the pier and implement a drum-lining technique to catch sharks to see which sharks surround South Caicos. My group specifically caught three sand sharks, a pregnant nurse shark and the largest lemon shark our professor has ever caught (3 meters) — an extraordinary experience I will never forget. This trip was the first time, alone and away from family and friends, that I got a memorable tattoo. As scary as it was to leave and be away from civilization, this experience was unforgettable, and I hoped my journey would continue down this adventurous path. (Here’s a link to my short SFS autobiography: https://fieldstudies.org/2016/06/an-amazing-first-week/ )

With one week left on the island, I received a phone call; I accepted an internship at Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut, to work in the husbandry department with the California sea lions. I felt perfect for the job because before graduation, I had prior experience at Norwalk Aquarium undertaking daily husbandry care with tropical animals, quarantined animals, jellyfish, marine mammals, reptiles and local fish. So, within one week, I had to pack up and move my things to the southeastern part of Connecticut to pursue this internship for the next six months. My husbandry care duties included animal behavior training with their six California sea lions performing daily food preparation, water changes, leading the sound booth for weekly shows and more.

Once December 1st hit, my internship was over, and I needed ankle surgery due to my lifelong soccer career. I ended up taking about six months off and moved back to Farmington, Connecticut, where my parents helped me get back on my feet. Soon after recovery, I got the opportunity to move to Georgia to intern with the River Scout section at the Georgia Aquarium, thanks to my previous aquarium experience. Thankfully, we have family there and they allowed me to live in their spare room for the next year while I hoped to find a job. A few months later, I had a fantastic surprise. My college roommate, Michael Sheridan, another CSC alumnus, moved down the road from me in Marietta, Georgia, to work for Life University with the rugby team, seeing that he pursued athletic training. It was very nice having a familiar face in a new city and state, so of course, we hung out a lot.

My responsibilities as a River Scout intern included husbandry care for albino alligators, box turtles, discus, stingrays, snakes, zebra sharks, epaulette sharks and smaller river fish. I performed daily food preparation for am/pm feeds, daily water quality tests, water changes and tank transfers. After a month, I saw a job opening as a divemaster with the whale sharks and manta rays in the largest tank, which is also the USA’s largest tank. I ended up getting the job! This job was my first real experience in my biology field, even though it wasn’t specifically husbandry based and more tourism based; I gained a lot of customer and scuba experience, which helped me become an SDI and NAUI Scuba Instructor within the year. Diving with animals that are usually seen in the open ocean and are five times bigger than you is, of course, a memorable and unforgettable experience. NO, I was never scared because whale sharks and manta rays are filter feeders, which means only during feeding time do these animals even open their mouths because of a routine diet and schedule. Still, these animals take in many small pieces of prey, like krill and tiny cutup bites of fish at one time by opening their mouth and taking in whatever happens to be there while filtering out undesirable parts. YES, there were other large and small marine animals like sawfish, blacktip reef and zebra sharks, hump head wrasse, a green sea turtle named Tank, stingrays and about 50 other species of animals; however, this tank holds 6.3 million gallons of water and has enough space for people and animals to swim around.

One weekend at the aquarium, I received the opportunity of a lifetime to volunteer with the Greater Atlanta Christian School (GACS). They were practicing snorkeling to go to Belize in a few months to learn about local plants and animals, cooperative field research, active exploration and cultural experiences. Due to my outgoing personality, I apparently made a great impression on the chaperones and students. Before the group left the aquarium, I nudged the lead chaperone on the shoulder. I asked if they needed a rescue-certified chaperone, because I could help in the water. With the approval of all the kids and other chaperones, within 24 hours, I received a call back asking if I could be their eighth chaperone on this trip, and of course, I accepted! In May, we left for my next two-week adventure; GACS partnered with IZEbelize, which is a program that specializes in educational expeditions in the rainforest and on coral reefs, allowing us the opportunity to conduct marine research with the students through snorkeling, hiking, kayaking and ethnobotany walk. We also had the chance to see old Mayan ruins and go to a local drum school to learn the Garifuna’s rich history and culture while learning the different traditional drum beats and dances that influence music throughout Belize and Central America. I am thankful for this unplanned and spontaneous trip and will continue to see every occasion as an opportunity to learn and grow.

“If we don’t change, we don’t grow; growth is uncomfortable; if we are not uncomfortable, we don’t grow, and aren’t really living.”

I grew up in a quaint suburban town in Connecticut and chose to attend the small and private Colby-Sawyer College. Being in Atlanta, I realized that I am not a city girl, and even though I loved my job swimming with whale sharks every day, I always knew that Atlanta, Georgia was just a steppingstone for me. So, while still in the first year of my job, and after getting my scuba instructor certification, I realized I wanted to go into the real world and work in an animal’s natural habitat, exploring all corners of the world. I applied for a divemaster job on the Kona aggressor in Kona, Hawaii, and two months later, I got the phone call. Moving to Hawaii was a dream of mine, and I made sure that everyone knew that I would end up there at one time my life, so I took the job and left Georgia in less than three weeks, making sure that I left my incredible job on good terms. I ended up flying my CSC friend, Vicky Driscoll (2012 graduate), to Georgia to help me drive all of my stuff back up to Connecticut and move to Hawaii in five days. Since I didn’t know when the next time I would be back on the mainland, my family celebrated Christmas and Thanksgiving with me in two days.

November 15th showed up very quickly, and so did my 18-hour plane ride to the Big Island. Once I arrived, I got all my luggage and headed to my Airbnb to write in my journal about this life-changing event. With one day to spare, I walked around Kona, Hawaii, pampering myself with tropical fruit and Kona coffee while spending some time relaxing in the sun and scouting out the local fish with my new GoPro. Then the inevitable morning of November 17, 2018, came, and I boarded the Kona aggressor. The job included taking about 14 week-long guests diving five times a day, seeking the animals and natural wonders of Hawaii. An old co-worker from Georgia Aquarium who previously lived on the Big Island, Charles Mowery, prepared me how to tie boat knots, explained what types of animals I would see. But whether or not he called it beginners luck, I got the opportunity for multiple wild manta rays and a juvenile (10 ft) and adult (25 ft) wild whale shark to surprise me in the water; an ineffable experience. I also swam with tiger sharks, spinner dolphins, green sea turtles, a squad of squid, Harley Quinn shrimp, nudibranchs and a rare abroad stingray. I got the opportunity to lead the famous manta ray dive where 0-30 mantas can show up to eat and the pelagic night dive where you can see anything from tiny pelagic crustaceans to large pelagic mammals. Some minuscule pelagic crustaceans I got to see were winged box jelly (Alatina alata), flying fish (Exocotidae), larval banded coral shrimp (Stenosis hispidis) and one pelagic seahorse (Hippocampus fishery). (photos: http://milisenphotography.yolasite.com/blackwater.php)

These two months of working remotely on a boat were challenging and exhausting, but amazing and experimental, which made me realize it wasn’t the job for me as a young 25-year-old. So, my co-worker Edward and I decided that Oahu was the island for us, but why not explore the rest of the Big Island and Maui on the way? Edward Pattison and I traveled all over the Big Island for four days. We visited Hawaii Volcano National Park, Waipi’o Valley lookout, traveled to the USA’s southernmost point, saw black and red sand beaches and went to Mauna kea with a bottle of wine and watched the sunset.

Big Island was beautiful, but on to the next island adventure, Maui. We wanted to live the most remote and fun way, so we rented an Airbnb van for two weeks. We saw every side of the island doing a figure, exploring the road to Hana, hiking Haleakala and seeing the famous Nakalele blowhole, JAWS, a renowned surf spot, Papalua beach park and Ho’okipa lookout, where I got my second island-themed tattoo. We made many fantastic friends along the way; one memorable friend I will end this story with is Elliott Walda. Edward and I met him out flying his drone around a valley; he was a Disney freelance photographer at the time who was exploring the island out of a car as well. He hung out with us the rest of our time on Maui, then joined us and our adventures around the beginning of February when we made it to Oahu at the end of the two weeks.

When we first got to Oahu, Edward split ways, and it was just Elliott and I exploring the city of Honolulu, west side snorkel sites, kayaking east side Kaneohe Bay and famous Hawaii hikes. Elliot and I had so much fun that week, but all good times come to an end, so we split ways, and we became best friends who kept in touch years later. But randomly and surprisingly, a great friend from Colby-Sawyer alumni recently moved back to his home on the Hawaii islands. Lukas Kalvaitis and the Kalvaitis family; Linas was my favorite biology professor at Colby-Sawyer College due to his optimistic personality, field-based teaching style and extravagant Hawaiian stories. I believe subconsciously his Hawaiian cultural values were passed on to me. We hung out every day, and he and his family showed me around and made me feel welcomed. But again, good times come to an end, and on February 24, 2018, I was accepted to train and work with OneOceanDiving, a cage-free shark diving company North Shore, Oahu, meaning I had to move an hour north. For the next seven months, I trained daily to free dive with people and with sharks as a research safety diver. No part of this job was easy; I got to swim mainly with Galapagos and sandbar sharks, but we saw a handful of tiger and hammerhead sharks. We took photos and videos on every dive to continue our ongoing research with the company, which allowed us to ID many of our most commonly seen sharks and see new ones, depending on noticeable scaring. We had a deal that if you saw a tiger shark first, you could name it, so I saw a beautiful juvenile female. I named her Makamai Papa because my name last is Papa, and in Hawaiian, Papa means precious reef.  

When August came around, I had to go back home for a wedding, and I decided that I got a lot of experience, but I needed a career change. With a year in Hawaii, I didn’t see much progress. It is sad to say, but many biologists in Hawaii, and throughout my many travel experiences, told me my experience wasn’t good enough. One thousand four hundred hours of internship experience at three different aquariums and three different remote places studying aquatic ecosystems wasn’t good enough!? And sadly, this is normal! I don’t know if biologists have so much passion that they hold high expectations for others. But still, my entire life, every person and job told me this career is challenging and that I will never make enough money to live off of, and my passion for animals kept wanting to prove everyone wrong. But I felt I hit a wall being in Hawaii with no way to move up, and that was not the life I wanted to live. At the time, I lived in a beautiful home in Haleiwa with my boyfriend and our new one-month-old puppy that we found on the side of the road. So I needed a job if I wanted to keep trying to make this work and got the opportunity to work down the road at a bikini shop as a manager to increase my resume experience. And on the side, to keep my biology experience active, I volunteered for Hawaii Marine Animal Rescue (HMAR), the most extensive Hawaii-based nonprofit marine species conservation, field support, education, rescue and stranding response organization. Our main job was to ensure that tourists weren’t bothering these protected cultural Hawaiian monk seals and sea turtles. I worked there for a few months until COVID hit March 7, 2020, shutting down our state.

Since then, my puppy Tako (which stands for Octopus in Japanese and because free divers eat tako) and I explored every nook and cranny of Oahu. We went on 4 -7 mile hikes a day and never took the Hawaii sun for granted because I knew this unemployment life wouldn’t be sustainable for long. I then got the opportunity of a lifetime from my friend, Elliott (the one that I met on Maui while living out of a van). He built a luxury van to travel to figure out where he wanted to live and asked me to live in his van with him for a few months with our two puppies, AND OF COURSE, I SAID YES! But before I packed, my Colby-Sawyer peer Lukas Kalvaitis asked me to go on one last Hawaiian adventure before the state shut down again. He and his family grew up on Kauai, and I remember Linas & Lukas always telling me stories of how amazing Kaui was and how beautiful this 22-mile in-and-out hiking trail called the Na Pali Coast Trail (Kalalau) was. Was this dream going to come true? During a pandemic, was I really going to hike with everything on my back and see one of the top 10 most beautiful beaches in the world? Um. YES! But first, we needed to make sure we were in shape, so we decided to hike the most famous hike on Oahu, Stairway to Heaven, also known as the Haiku Stairs. A vertical 2,000 ft in elevation hike and a minimum of six hours long, with few spots about one foot wide, and areas that need a rope to climb up. It was a gorgeous day with not many other people, and I happily ran down the last two hours of the mountain.

Within a few days, we booked our tickets to Kauai. We got permits to hike the Nā Pali Coast State Wilderness Park, drove up to Waimea Canyon, otherwise known as The Grand Canyon of the Pacific, walked Alaka’i Swamp, the world’s highest rainforest, and swampland. After ten days of hiking, we completed over 40 miles! Once we got back, it was back to reality; I had only a few days to get back to the mainland and get ready for another adventure, but this time out of a van. A long 16-hour plane ride later with an eight-month-old puppy, at the time, went very well but was exhausting due to the six-hour time difference. So, I spent two weeks at home, enjoying my family and the weather. I also met up with one of my few Colby-Sawyer friends that live in Connecticut, Kyle Deming, to catch up on life since graduation.

Then it was time for Elliott to come to pick me up. It was easy packing because I could only bring a few things, minimalistic similar to my life in Hawaii, making it an easy transition. Our first stop was in southern Connecticut, visiting my dad, then Rhode Island to walk the cliff walk with our pups, Massachusetts, to watch the sunset at Race Point in Provincetown, Rhode Island. We then continued to northern Massachusetts to visit family and my Colby-Sawyer friends Jeff Dunn, Amanda Mae-Horne and Katie McCarthy, because the last time I saw them was our 2012 graduation. They encouraged me to head to New Hampshire and revisit Colby-Sawyer College, which would be the first time since graduation that I have been back. I walked around the school, showing Elliott where I lived and reminiscing over the good times. After our campus tour, we met up with Rachel Springman, another 2012 Colby-Sawyer alumni, and had lunch at Peter Christians like the good old days. The day wasn’t even close to being over; that night, we ended up heading to a local brewery to meet up with Pedro Altagracia (2014 graduate), roommate Rachel Quaye (2013 graduate) and Marc Andre-Parent (2012 graduate) and his wife Casey Elise-Parent (2011 graduate). We caught up on life, had some drinks, showed off the van and introduced our puppies. Those few days were very fulfilling to know how many Colby-Sawyer College friends were still in my life four years later. 

            As our journey continued, we purposely planned to hit these beautiful New England states during peak foliage season. I got to show Elliot, from Northern Michigan, the Kancamagus Highway, which is obviously the best fall foliage viewing areas in the country on our drive to Maine. We planned to drive through all the way up to Lubec, the most northeastern continental point of the United States, because Elliott and I, while on Big Island two years earlier, got to see the most southwestern point of the United States. On the way back down, we stopped at Acadia National Park (our first national park), walked the Pemaquid Point lighthouse and drove through the White Mountain National Forest. This was both of our first times vacationing in Maine.

Our next plan was to head back to my parents’ cabin in western Massachusetts, but since it was a long drive, we stopped back off to visit Jeff Dunn, Amanda Mae-Horne and Katie McCarthy to celebrate my 27th birthday. In a long time, I finally got to celebrate my birthday, surrounded by family and friends. It was a birthday that I have dreamed of since leaving home. After a few days of celebrating in flannels, timberland boots with New England cider around a fire, we continued to Vermont. We started by having dinner with my former soccer teammate Nell McQueeney (2013 graduate, then heading to Burlington, Vermont, to see Jake Maynard (2012 graduate) and Roguen Carlson (2011 graduate). We also really wanted to see dog mountain, a private mountaintop of 150 acres, dedicated just for dogs, because we have two young puppies. After that, we took the van over the Burlington ferry in northern New York. After a few stops, we made our way to see the Finger Lakes and the New York side of Niagara Falls, which was both our first times. Sadly, our van trip had to get cut short due to a job opportunity he couldn’t deny, forcing him to move back home. Still, we happily finished our van life in Indiana, and I went to my uncle’s in Illinois.

What was I thinking at this point… I have no idea, but I will figure it out. At the beginning of this trip, my personal goal was to figure out where we wanted to live, and even though it got cut short, my other personal goal was to learn how to be alone because I have always had a twin brother around. These might sound like weird goals until you get to my age, and you will understand. And it’s not that I want to be alone, but as an adult now having another responsibility of a nine-month-old puppy, I had to decide how to be the best dog mom I can ever be. So, I decided my travels weren’t over! I rented a car and visited a friend from Hawaii who moved back to Wisconsin, then Missouri, to my favorite vacation spot, the Lake of the Ozarks, and continued to Memphis, Tennessee. Michael Sheridan, my former Colby-Sawyer College roommate and my friend, who lived in Atlanta, Georgia with me, recently moved there while I was in Hawaii. I got to see Rhodes College, where he is one of their assistant athletic trainers and visited the National Civil Rights Hall of Fame, the famous Beale Street, Elvis Presley’s house, and his personal plane. My one-week rental was coming to an end, and Michael saw I wasn’t ready to go back to the middle of nowhere, Illinois, so he asked me if I wanted to watch him play club rugby in Birmingham, Alabama (Halloween day). I said YES, and I extended my rental for another week. That night, I needed to find a place to stay and had an old friend from my SFS in Turks and Caicos who lived in Alabama his whole life. So, I drove to Tuscaloosa to spend Halloween night at Alabama state. The next morning, he showed me around their massive campus. I had some southern BBQ, then decided I was only three hours away from my old state of Atlanta, Georgia, and decided to visit more friends and family to finish off the rest of the week.

The three-hour drive to Georgia was the shortest drive that I have done. I got to relax a little bit and hang out with my family and friends. I got the chance to go back to the Georgia Aquarium because they opened their new shark exhibit two weeks beforehand. The experience of walking through the new exhibit on my own was very memorable and heart touching because I had the chance to look back in time and see what my life could have been if I didn’t spend these last two years in Hawaii. But if it isn’t apparent already, I am an adventurous type of person, and I don’t regret Hawaii whatsoever. I have experienced and learned so much these past four years since graduation that I hope the story reaches many people and shows them that life has its ups and downs, especially during a pandemic, but it’s what you make of it! Are you ready for this next curveball?

A week quickly went by in Georgia, and it was my time to return my rental. The plan was to head up to Nashville, Tennessee, to finally meet my cousin Taryn Papa, who just got called to be on Team Blake Shelton on the show The Voice. But I ended up getting a flat tire; they towed my rental in exchange for another car, but they hid all of the vehicles because of potential riots due to the presidential election, and I was stuck in Atlanta. So long story short, I now own a car, and my timeline on where to go and what to do has just extended by two months until Christmas. Without a plan or a deadline, I decided to contact my twin brother, Dylan Papa, in Orlando, Florida, to visit him, his new fiancé, and their new house. 

It is currently about a month later, and I am still here trying to figure my life out. I am applying for jobs and hopefully looking for a future career. At this moment, I am the marketing manager of my brother’s fiancé with his new direct primary care business called The Health Carpenter in Orlando, Florida, and I think I found my new niche. The holidays and new year have gone by. Who knows where I will be in the upcoming year, but that story has yet to be written. Feel free to follow me on my @TravelHigher_TravelDeeper Instagram page and reach out for any future questions.

Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning how to dance in the rain.” -Vivian Greene

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