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By Chance, A Career in Conservation

Sometimes your career path is unpredictable and a single chance event can markedly alter your professional future.

That’s certainly the case for Bruce Weissgold ’89. After graduating from UMass, Weissgold entered graduate school at the University of Virginia (UVA) where he focused on US-Japanese cooperation in the design and development of a new single seat fighter jet.

In his spare time, he worked in the UVA library, and it was there where he launched his career in wildlife conservation:

“I was working at the UVA library repairing damaged books when a book about wildlife trade landed on my desk,” he recalls. “It was quick read, and it took me back to those PBS nature shows I watched as a kid. I ended up switching thesis topics within a few weeks.”

Weissgold started studying the political aspects of implementation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) treaty. 

After finishing his MA, he received a call out of the blue from the World Wildlife Fund (he had interviewed a senior person there for his MA thesis). They offered him a short-term consultant position, and the rest is history!

Weissgold stayed with the World Wildlife Fund for about three years and then moved to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), where he worked for the agency’s law enforcement intelligence unit investigating multinational wildlife smuggling networks.

“In that job, I learned that it is actually possible to hold 60+ baby pythons in a bra,” he recalls.

Today, Weissgold works in the USFWS CITES policy shop as a senior policy specialist.

Serving in that position for more than 19 years has allowed him to witness a shift in public service careers. The reality of today’s public service career means constant juggling. “There is no typical work week,” he says.

Indeed, trying to balance his personal life with his professional demands means keeping several balls in the air at once. “It is not always fun, sometimes the rewards get lost in the morass of the juggle, and sometimes things get dropped,” he says. “But if you know why you're doing it, and that's a good thing, then you're okay.” 

His advice to get through it? “Make enough for leftovers, take vacations and breaks, accept that you have limits, and teach your children well.”

And learn how to listen.

“In my line of work, the perspective on elephant conservation is quite different for a person whose family has been carving ivory for 100 years, compared to someone whose livelihood depends on their salary as a game guide in a safari lodge” he says. “I will never be able to truly understand either world sitting at a desk in Virginia, but I can listen to what is said by each.”

He goes on: “The world is unbelievably complicated.  Listen, listen, and then listen some more.  Then think about opening your mouth.  Then listen one more time.  Then say something smart,” he advises.

When Weissgold began at UMass, he was shocked to find out how little he knew about the world outside of the US. “I remember sitting down in [American Diplomat] Tony Lake's class on U.S. Foreign Policy and being handed a blank map of Africa's borders,” he says.  “The instructions:  Fill in the names.  I remember nailing Egypt and South Africa and thinking, ‘geez, I don't know anything about the world.’”

Things are certainly different today; his CITES work has taken him to every continent except Antarctica.

Weissgold encourages students interested in foreign affairs to take to heart the advice he received from Professor Emeritus Eric Einhorn: “remember that most government departments have international affairs programs.” Students can find rewarding international experiences in a variety of public service agencies, not just the typical CIA or Department of State, he says.

Moreover, Amherst is an excellent place to start preparing for an international career.

“UMASS is a great place to scratch the surface of the world,” he says. “In its tremendous course offerings there is more knowledge and perspective than any person could ever hope to absorb.” So, take advantage of what UMass offers and create a broad curriculum, he says. 

And if you want Weissgold’s personal recipe for success: “Pour equal parts of luck, perseverance, intelligence, and humor and shake well. Add more luck as needed if you plan to change your thesis topic at the end of grad school!” 

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  • Alumni News