Just south of Portland, Maine, Cape Elizabeth juts out into the Atlantic between Saco Bay and Casco Bay. On the southeast edge of the cape is Two Lights State Park. There are no lighthouses in Two Lights State Park, a source of consistent dismay and clarification for the park rangers who patrol the 41-acre park. What there is, instead, is an abundance of wildlife and a well-worn trail whose loops combine for a two-mile stroll that offers glimpses of minke whales making their way up the coast.
In late August, environmental science major Emily Lopez ’17 walked the trail, radio in hand, with an easy familiarity. She learned every inch of Two Lights as a park ranger the summer after she graduated, and it was the final piece of her Colby-Sawyer education, too, as she earned internship credit for her experience.
With an interest in law enforcement and a passion for conservation, the full-time position proved an ideal first step toward a career: As Lopez’s internship wound down, she already had a conditional offer of employment as a marine patrol officer pending completion of a battery of requirements.
“At the end of my first day as a park ranger, I already loved the job — I love hiking, being outdoors and the ocean — and it introduced me to being an authority figure,” said Lopez, who grew up in Maine. “My responsibilities were to enforce the park rules and regulations, to make sure visitors were safe, to help them have a good time and answer their questions, and also to maintain the park. I had some people not take me seriously when I wore a uniform, but they still had to listen to me.”
Knowing how to read people and situations, interact with park visitors and having a consistent presence in the park was just as valuable as knowing its flora and fauna.
“You have to be willing to talk to people and know that you’re dealing with everyone from veterans and the elderly to families and people who have never seen the ocean before,” said Lopez. “My liberal arts background helped with that, especially my psychology and sociology classes. You have to be a little fearless. But I enjoyed coming to work. I got to see the sun set every night. The park is beautiful, and I was reminded of that by the people who visited from all over the world.”
There were also park regulars, and Lopez learned some of their stories, too. One woman, who came once a week to sit on the memorial bench that bears her husband’s name, shared that he was taken too soon; she loves coming to the park because she feels his presence as she gazes at the sea.
“When I heard how meaningful the park is for people, when they talked about their first dates or weddings or other memories, it made me feel great,” said Lopez.
Another thing that made Lopez feel great was taking the skills and information she learned in the classroom at Colby-Sawyer and applying them to her work. During the interview process for the internship, she was able to demonstrate her existing knowledge as well as her eagerness to keep learning.
“The field studies courses, especially marine communities, helped a lot, along with conservation biology and exploring nature,” said Lopez. “My professors were so passionate about teaching; I brag about them all the time. They knew me as a student and a person and saw me grow over four years — now they’re my references. That’s huge.”
Lopez’s next move will draw on those references as she goes through the extensive process of becoming a marine patrol officer. In that role, she would patrol an assigned coastal area by land and aboard patrol vessels to protect the public, marine resources and coastal property; enforce applicable laws and investigate complaints and incidents.
To get there, she has taken an ALERT test, passed a physical fitness test, undergone an oral board interview and next has to pass a background check, polygraph test, psychological evaluation, medical exam, and swim test in order to have the final offer of employment. Then, there’s the Marine Patrol 45-day field training followed by 18-weeks of training at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. At the end, Lopez would be only the second female Marine Patrol officer active in the state of Maine.
A standout athlete on Colby-Sawyer’s cross country and track and field teams, Lopez finished a full two minutes ahead of the pack during the physical fitness test.
“My athletic background has helped me not only because being physically fit is important, but having that teamwork is important. You cheer your teammates, you support them, you want to see them succeed and do well,” said Lopez. “Now I’m taking that sense of teamwork and applying it to law enforcement. I want to be able to go out as a marine patrol officer and know that my coworkers have my back. And I’ll have their backs.”