My Grad Story: Gratitude

Student with Cap and Gown
Rebecca A. Eckland

Sam Lieberman Regents’ Award for Student Scholarship recipient and Environmental Science major Cassie Barber spent the first warm spring day of 2022 clearing out the beds for TMCC’s new pollinator garden. The garden, which will share space with the Countess Angela Dandini Garden, will feature milkweed plants to attract and provide habitat for monarch butterflies as well as a handful of other flowering plants for local bees, hummingbirds, moths and a handful of other pollinator species. 

This hands-on work that directly impacts the local environment defines Barber’s educational journey at TMCC. A student who has been instrumental in planning, implementing and supporting two EcoBlitz events, the TMCC Natural History Museum and who conducts research into sustainability practices on campus, Barber’s journey to commencement begins in a very unlikely place: a beauty salon. 

“I was a cosmetologist for about eight years. Right after high school, I jumped into what I thought was my dream career,” she said, explaining that the company for which she worked was focused on sustainability behind the harvesting and cultivating of the plants that were used in its beauty products. “That was my initial interest, and really, why I made the decision to pursue a college degree.” 

She started her academic journey at TMCC as an undecided major. She took a wide variety of classes at first, but very quickly she realized that biology and environmental science classes were the ones that interested her the most. “That was when I realized this was the right path for me,” she said. 

Learning About the Environment

Barber began taking the subjects covered in her classes home with her, and specifically, to conversations with her dad, who works as an environmental consultant. “Everything I was learning in the biology and environmental science classes really piqued my interest. I’ve always talked with my dad about geology and plants, and different things native to the area.”

Geology, botany, biology: each class offered Barber glimpses into the science behind the world all around us. In her botany class—which she is taking this semester—Barber and other students are learning about the evolution of plant life, as well as how to identify plants in the world by their family classification. “It’s been a blast. I was actually out hiking earlier, looking for some plants to add to TMCC’s Natural History Museum,” she said. “It was nice to walk around and look at different plants and be able to say ‘this plant belongs to this family’... it’s so cool.”

Barber’s hands-on approach to education makes her remarkable—but becoming so involved in her education happened nearly by happenstance. “It all started with the EcoBlitz,” she said. “I was in Megan Lahti’s Biology class and she was looking for someone to help… and she reached out to me, knowing a little bit about my background, and I said ‘yes’, which I don’t normally do.”

Yet, when Barber made the decision to pursue a college degree, she also made a promise to herself. Normally a student who would “keep to herself” and “keep my head down and work hard”, Barber decided to be the person who said “yes” to opportunities when they presented themselves. 

“I wanted to start saying ‘yes’ and to be more interactive, and not to live much in my own little bubble. Because, honestly, what do you gain from that?” she said. 

EcoBlitz, Natural History Museum and Undergraduate Research

Barber served as Event Coordinator for the inaugural EcoBlitz event in Spring 2021 and once again in Fall 2021—events that invited other TMCC students, faculty and members of the community to become “citizens of science” to collect observations of animal and plant life at Rancho San Rafael Park that would result in a 24-hour “snapshot” of the life present in the park.

That opportunity led Barber to conduct her own research assessing human disturbances in green spaces. “I’m studying water quality throughout the park to determine if humans are making impacts on the park,” she said, explaining that much of her focus has been on the water quality of the marshlands that border the dog park. “That has the potential to be majorly impacted by animal waste. And yet, so far, I have noticed that the wetlands are doing a wonderful job of mediating all of the impacts that humans—and their pets—could possibly leave behind, which is kind of neat. It’s cool to learn about something I didn’t even intend to learn about.” 

She has also started a new environmental impact study on the Dandini Campus in collaboration with the Sustainability Committee. “I am going to assess the use and impact of de-icers that are used on campus,” she said. The study, which will be funded by a NASA grant, will again rely on soil and water samples Barber will collect after a de-icing product is used during the winter months. 

“De-icers are used as safety precautions on campus, and so it’s teetering on that edge of what can we use that’s safe for people, but also safe for the environment?” she asked. “Mainly what the campus uses now is rock salt, which does a great job. It lowers the melting point of the ice, so people don’t slip… but the problem is when water carries all that material down through the parking lot and into the surrounding area, it carries all the sodium, chloride, magnesium, potassium—all these things that are naturally occurring—but when they’re found in that concentration, they can be damaging to plants, organisms and soil.”  

Barber hopes that through her research she can support TMCC’s sustainability practices and, perhaps, make them even better. Her research is also feeding into the work she does for her part-time job. “I help complete water quality analysis for different mining companies to make sure that they are maintaining their compliance. And it’s really cool that I already have something I’ve learned at TMCC that I can apply in my job,” she said. 

Becoming a Leader

After graduation, Barber envisions continuing her education in environmental science at UNR and later, continue working as an environmental consultant for the mining industry in Nevada. “I really feel that my calling might be similar to the work that my dad does, and the part-time work I do now. I love our state, and I want to keep it beautiful,” she said. 

Although Barber’s challenges on her way to the commencement stage were many and included a worldwide pandemic, she discovered unexpected lessons through her hands-on work and research: it takes perseverance and determination to reach your goals. And it also takes saying ‘yes’ to opportunities, and not being afraid to try something new.

“The pandemic was one of the biggest challenges that I’ve faced in my lifetime, and also my academic career. That was when I decided to leave my salon and pursue my degree, so that was a pretty pivotal moment. It was scary and I wondered if I was going in the right direction. Throughout the whole time, I maintained my gratitude because everything amazing takes time…it doesn’t happen overnight.” 

Gratitude is the word Barber uses to describe her journey from cosmetologist to environmental scientist and researcher. “It is easy to be overwhelmed by what we have going on, the world, the things that are not going right, the things we wish we had,” she said. “I always find the fastest way to overcome these mental blocks is to practice gratitude and remember how far I have come, the things I have learned along the way, all the things I have to look forward to, and how many things I have to be grateful for. Gratitude is the greatest multiplier.”

Celebrating the Class of 2022: My Grad Story

Every year, the TMCC celebrates our graduates through a multi-platform campaign that tells the stories of our students’ journeys to the commencement stage. However, members of the class of 2022 will have a unique experience of having their academic and personal lives altered due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  Our graduates embody diversity in every imaginable way, and in these series of stories we will celebrate their journey to the commencement stage and beyond.  This is one part of a multi-story series we will continue to run through May.