Melanie Tracey (’22), Naturally a Naturalist
For Penn State Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management alumna Melanie Tracey (2022), a career in conservation—taking care of our natural world and sharing that passion with others—has been a goal since she was a young girl. Mel attributes the start to her success when she started volunteering at the York County Richard Nixon Park at age 13. That decision, as well as listening to her heart and sometimes taking the uncomfortable route, would eventually lead to her being hired as a full-time Naturalist at that same park.
“I originally didn’t want to go to Penn State,” said Mel. “I had a high school teacher who bled blue and white and the sound of that huge campus was scary to me. Looking back now, I see that being able to do things I didn’t think I could do has been a big part of my growth.”
Her focus and interest in the outdoors and experience through middle school and high school as a volunteer at York County’s 14,000 square-foot Nature Center—located on 213 acres of meadows and woodlands—planted the seed for a career in the outdoors. Starting as an animal care associate, handler, and junior environmental educator, Mel had gathered considerable experience in environmental education before she even graduated from high school. She enrolled at Penn State’s Mont Alto campus with the intention to declare a major in forestry. After an early-in-the-game class field trip to a sawmill, Mel knew something wasn’t right. A conversation with a Forestry Professor at Mont Alto started with “Mel, I can see you don’t love this.” In hearing about her interest in conservation, forest management, and speaking to the public about her love of the outdoors, the professor suggested she look into the Outdoor Recreation Management option in Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management.
Mel spent her first two years at Mont Alto, taking GEN ED courses and prepping for the RPTM major. That meant an eventual transfer to University Park and the huge campus that she dreaded back in high school. Mel laughs now and says, “I did get to State College and was able to grow by stepping out of my comfort zone.”
“The umbrella of RPTM has so many different career paths under it,” said Mel. “I have so many memories of college. Some of them are smaller and simple, like walking and hiking in between classes, but also my time at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center. There are so many great memories there.”
Mel participated in Penn State’s Student Engagement and Experiential Discovery program (also called SEED semester) through Penn State’s affiliate nature center at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center. Students enrolled in SEED complete all of their course work at the Center, located 13 miles from Penn State’s University Park campus for a block-type semester. SEED offers courses in environmental education, park and resource management, historical and natural interpretation, and principles of interpretive materials. SEED also includes a week-long field trip through the northeast and opportunities like Outdoor School and the Maple Harvest Festival as add-on learning opportunities. Along the way, Mel continued to spend summers volunteering at Nixon Park.
In addition to her love of the outdoors, Mel also found success during her time at Penn State on the volleyball court. Mel was recruited to play on Penn State Mont Alto's volleyball team in 2018. By 2019, she became the starting libero (defensive specialist), was named team captain, and was ranked third libero in the USCAA. She was awarded the John Fritz Sportsmanship Award, Academic All-conference, and earned honorable mention accolades for all American. “I have gained so much insight on not only the game but the leadership, teamwork, and responsibility playing volleyball. I almost played at main campus too. I had a great walk-on tryout during coach Russ Rose's last season (his roster was overly full) but I ended up coaching for his son instead through the Hoppy Valley Academy. I had an all-star team winning multiple tournaments. I coached many D1 volleyball coaches' daughters including current Penn State Women's Volleyball coach Katie Schumacher-Cawley's daughter. I ended up getting a letter of recommendation from Coach Rose himself. A great ending to a colligate volleyball career. One I didn't think I'd have.”
With college graduation and volleyball ending in August of 2022, Mel thought the next step in her journey might take some time to figure out. “I know our field is very specific and so I was ready to start the search for a job. I was prepared to take seasonal work and move to where I could find it as I began my career. And then the stars aligned.”
In the weeks after graduation, Mel learned that the full-time Naturalist at Nixon County had submitted their resignation. She soon found herself interviewing with the Park Manager and Assistant Park Manager – former supervisors and colleagues who had known Mel since her early teen years. She recently celebrated her first anniversary as a full-time Naturalist with Nixon Park.
“My favorite part of my job is that I am able to practice being an outdoor conservationist every day as a professional,” said Mel. “I get to be a steward of the outdoors every day. My second favorite part of my job are the many volunteers and volunteer groups I get to work with. I am so grateful for their help and support of our projects at the Park.”
Mel’s advice to current or future RPTM graduates is to follow your passion. Network. Do things that make you feel uncomfortable. “The naturalist in me says to flip over those rocks and find out what is under it. You never know what you might find.”