As Josh Macri (‘19) and Sydney Hazzard (‘20) approach the hunters, both must quickly assess the situation at hand. Canada geese lay everywhere. A home, maybe 100 yards away, sits dangerously close to the grass where two men emerge, guns resting casually on their shoulders as they walk forward. They don’t look happy. Macri and Hazzard slip their faces into calm, collected expressions as Macri asks, “How’s everyone doing today?”
To top it all off, they’re being watched. Off to the side of the encounter and making assessments of his own stands a man closely noting every word, every gesture, of the field experience in front of him: Sgt. Aaron Cross of the Maine Warden Service.
The geese are plastic. The guns are fake. And the hunters are actually work-study students doing their best to be combative and stand-offish. But Sgt. Cross? He’s about as real as it gets.
It’s just another day in the Conservation Law Enforcement program at Unity College, where students often find themselves working alongside state fish and game wardens; forest rangers; marine patrols; federal enforcement officers for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management; and environmental enforcement officers for the Environmental Protection Agency and state environmental agencies. It’s all a part of the package. More often than not these campus visitors are alumni, returning to the community that helped them get where they are today.
“It seems like every chance they get they’re coming up here,” Assistant Professor of Conservation Law Enforcement Lori Perez said. “Our students really value it. It reaffirms things for them — they’re learning about the law and putting it into use, and then they get feedback from officials who have been doing things for ‘X’ amount of years.”
“They take it to heart, and it helps them see a future in this field. Students see our alumni and think, ‘That’s what I want to be. That’s what I can become.’ These guys have all been in their shoes, so they’re perfect role models.”
Guidance from alumni role models is something all Unity students experience at one point or another in their education, regardless of major. It’s not uncommon to run into alumni on campus from all walks of life, from biologists to entrepreneurs and zookeepers to lawyers. Those networking opportunities are key to Unity’s thriving career placement numbers — according to a recent alumni survey, 70 percent of Unity College graduates are employed full-time or pursuing graduate degrees. Unity College alumni know, firsthand, how capable these college graduates are.
For Conservation Law students, this recruitment aspect of alumni visits is a clear part of the package. On the same day Sgt. Cross advised field exercises on campus, Warden Dave Ross was a short walk up the hill doing the same. Both were looking for promising recruits for the warden service. So being watched by a warden doesn’t just mean great advice — an impressive performance could mean a job someday.
“It is important that we find good candidates to apply to, and hopefully get hired by, Maine Warden Service to continue our strong tradition of excellence in conservation law enforcement practices in the state of Maine,” Sgt. Cross said. “I have been fortunate to be able to help at Unity for several years now. I think it provides students with some tips and knowledge that they can use moving forward, not only at Unity, but hopefully into the start of a career in the conservation law enforcement field.”
Within the Conservation Law Enforcement program, networking opportunities come almost weekly. Faculty lay a solid theoretical foundation for their students, teaching and lecturing on statutes; crime scene investigation techniques; policy procedures for the preparation and execution of search warrants; procedures for conducting interviews and interrogations; surveillance techniques; proper methods for handling evidence; and more. But to really drive lessons home, conservation law students spend much of their time out in their real classroom: Maine.
That’s where alumni step in and help out. The scene laid out with mock-hunters on a brisk fall day in mid-October is pretty much how it usually goes: field exercises mimic fieldwork for a conservation law enforcement officer, and the issues at hand that day directly related to a lecture earlier that week on the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
“I come to these classes primarily because I know what it’s like to be in their shoes,” Warden David Ross said. On the same day Sgt. Cross advised field exercises on campus, Ross was a short walk up the hill doing the same. “I think it’s imperative for students to have the opportunity to ask questions and seek advice from us that a professor may not be able to answer. I enjoy being able to help out, and it’s great to see the students grow from their first year to their final Capstone class.”
Students have to make the exact same decisions in field exercises that they would on the job. Does the illegal hunter violate an entire statute or just part of it? Do you write him a ticket? How do you explain that to him? Working in teams, Conservation Law undergraduates figure out how to be effective communicators and enforcement officers, and visiting alumni have valuable, relevant feedback to that process.
And the learning isn’t over when students head back inside — ultimately, every student must capture the scenario in a mock investigative report that explains every element of the crime. It’s a comprehensive education on every aspect of conservation law, from the statutes to the field and back to the office.
“Our Conservation Law Enforcement program really embodies our mission of experiential education, through and through,” Unity College President Dr. Melik Peter Khoury said. “For years now, Unity College has played a key role in developing and educating conservation officers working all over the United States. These students will be on the front lines of conservation, working in the woods and waters of our country every day to protect nature and the wildlife that call it home. We couldn’t change the world without them.”