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Last week changed my life.

When I look back over the events of the past five days, that’s the only way I can summarize it. This week was possibly the most exciting, inspiring, and exhausting weeks I’ve ever experienced.

Monday, June 11th marked the beginning of Explorers Week at National Geographic. More than 70 Explorers from every corner of the earth traveled to Washington, DC for a week of meetings, presentations, and receptions. It’s the only week of the year where all of these incredible minds are in one place, and I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time to experience it all.

I spent the week in a constant state of wonder. I was awed by the magnitude and creativity of the projects being pursued by this group of exceptional people. Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, a mountaineer from Austria, just became the first woman to summit all 8,000-meter peaks without the use of supplemental oxygen. Barrington Irving became the youngest person to fly around the world solo at age 23, and now is developing an education program where he can teach students from the air while flying around the world (again). Sarah Parcak has uncovered 17 new pyramids and 1,000 tombs in Egypt by using satellite technology. But seriously….who are these people? Who just wakes up in the morning and says, “I think I’ll save an endangered species today”? It’s overwhelming.

But mostly, it’s inspiring. Not only to listen to the fantastic projects they’re pursuing, but also to see the passion they feel for their work. In some of the panels, the speakers spoke so quickly that it was difficult to understand at times. At first I thought it was because they were nervous, but that wasn’t it at all. These people were so excited about their work that they tried to cram as much information as they possibly can into their presentations. I could spend hours listening to the Explorers. And in actuality, I did—at least 6 hours of my day, everyday, was devoted to listening to these speakers. Although that meant a few late nights catching up on my actual work, it was worth it.

And when I say this week changed my life, I mean it. Tuesday night, I had an epiphany. I had been thinking for months about where I wanted to go with the rest of my life, and in an instant it was clear. I don’t want to be writing about these people, I want to be one of those people. I want to do research and change how we view the world we live in. I want to work in the field and inspire people to care about the planet. I want to be passionate about my work. And most of all, I want to make a difference.

So that night, I made a decision. I’m officially declaring a minor in Marine Science, which will allow me to work side-by-side with professors at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Next summer, I plan to conduct a research project related to fisheries conservation. And when I graduate William & Mary, I want to attend a graduate institution that focuses on research in marine conservation.

I love my internship, but I’ll never be satisfied hearing about other people conducting research in the field from behind my desk. I want to be in the action. I want to be an Explorer.

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