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Alumni Highlight: Joy M. Oakes ’74

This alumni highlight is a guest post written by Joy M. Oakes, ’74. In it, she shares her Carlisle story, how she worked to secure her dream job and life advice for Carlisle’s class of 2020 seniors. 

Joy with her Cassidy men. L-R: Mike, Joy, Sean, Tom

I grew up on a cattle and tobacco farm at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains north of Danville. I recall with clarity realizing how fortunate I was to be surrounded by open space, with clean air and water (presumably) — and that not everyone was so blessed. Inspired by gratitude, and by my parents’ examples of service to others, I’ve built a career in advocacy for public lands and wildlife, clean air and water, and for preserving sites and landscapes important to America’s shared history and culture.

Despite challenging logistics – an 80-mile daily commute for most of my first year — Carlisle provided opportunities that I appreciate even more in retrospect. Carlisle’s faculty provided individual attention and led challenging classes that prepared me well for my time at Duke University. Faculty and staff expected and fostered excellence. Carlisle exposed me to new ideas and perspectives. I was limited only by my own curiosity and openness to learning.

My first boss in DC taught an undergraduate class at Georgetown on federal public lands policies. For years, he invited me to be a guest speaker – because, as a college senior, I had had no idea what work I wanted to do in life – and yet eventually I figured it out. My jobs after college had included laboring on the family farm; preparing residents of mental health institutions for community placements; raising heart research funds; waitressing; direct marketing, and tutoring. 

Sometimes external factors help suggest a direction. For me, my search coincided with a new federal administration whose leaders set policies that harmed the environment. After several volunteer gigs, my first paying job in conservation was as a part-time receptionist at a wildlife group’s government affairs office. I made myself indispensable. After many months they hired me for a full-time professional position – and I was on my way. To achieve your professional goals, you might need to move somewhere you know no one, live in a friend’s basement for a few weeks, work three minimum wage jobs, and volunteer in order to make yourself a known quantity in the field to which you aspire. Expect to make sacrifices on your path to success, and to pay your dues

Professionally, I am most proud of my leadership to defend, advance and implement federal and state clean air protections. If you are a child, a senior, pregnant, someone who works or exercises outside, or someone with heart or lung disease, you are especially vulnerable to air pollution. Rather than force our lungs to be the first line of defense against harmful pollution, industry can install control technology, change industrial processes, shift energy sources, and/or other measures. While sometimes doing so costs more, sometimes industries save money and see improvements in their workforce’s health, in addition to health benefits for communities, forests, and wildlife. 

My husband and I live in Arlington five miles from the White House. We back up to protected woods, where pileated woodpeckers and barred owls call. Years ago, we removed our grass and planted native plants for birds, pollinators, and other wildlife to express our conservation values in our personal lives. 

My proudest personal accomplishment is, with my husband, raising two young men who are pursuing their dreams with passion, resilience, and joy. Mike is an aviator with the U.S. Navy, and Sean is a Minor League baseball umpire. Each graduated from college with minimal/no debt — the consequence of attending in-state universities, their own earnings before and during college, a few scholarships, and our family’s saving for years on nonprofit incomes towards this goal. Graduating without debt enables Sean to pursue his professional umpire dream, which would be even more challenging were he weighed down by debt. Work with your family to plan and act so that your college experience leaves you with no or minimal debt.

In closing – figure out what motivates you to invest your time, talent and treasure to achieve your goals. Have the humility and curiosity to be a lifelong learner. Live beneath your financial means. Serve others, whether in your professional work or on your personal time. Ultimately, the measure of your success will be – how have you made life better for others?

Joy M. Oakes, ’74, valedictorian of Carlisle’s first graduating class, has worked for the National Parks Conservation Association, www.npca.org, since 2001 to defend and enhance national parks in the Mid-Atlantic region. Previously she worked for Sierra Club, National Audubon Society, and other nonprofits. She’s been a leader in successful campaigns to advance state and federal protections for clean air and water, to establish state and national parks including Chapman State Park in Maryland and Fort Monroe National Monument in Hampton, and to preserve historic landscapes at Valley Forge, Gettysburg, Harpers Ferry, and Petersburg national parks.