Q & A with Marjorie Jerez, RFL Academy 2020 alum

Marjorie Jerez at work in the White River National Forest.

Among the many pictures from last fall’s Camp Hale National Monument designation ceremony is a photo of a young U.S. Forest Service employee shaking hands with President Biden. The employee is Marjorie Jerez, the renewable resources GIS [Geographic Information System] specialist with the White River National Forest and an RFL Academy 2020 alum. For Marjorie’s parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from Nicaragua “with nothing,” she says, the photo is an immense source of pride. For Marjorie, too, attending the Camp Hale designation — being a part of history —  felt like the culmination of every risk, every leap of faith, every opportunity she had seized in her life thus far. 

Recently, RFL spoke with Marjorie about how her Academy experience influenced that journey and shaped her into the person and employee she is today. 

RFL: Where did you grow up? How long have you lived in the Roaring Fork Valley? 

Marjorie Jerez: I’m originally from Florida, just outside of Miami. I was born and raised there and I moved to the valley in October, 2018. In between, I went to university in Tallahassee and got my bachelor’s in environmental studies/social sciences and then my master’s in GIS. After I graduated, I took an Americorps position in Tennessee with the Parks Service at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I moved to California for a summer, to Sequoia King’s Canyon National Park, and then I moved back to Tennessee for another Americorps year. I was going to stay and do a PhD, but the professor I was supposed to do my research with got fired. I was about to move back to California when I was offered this job with the White River National Forest. 

RFL: What was your leadership experience prior to RFL? 

MJ: I was four to five months into my Americorps service and we had a huge wildfire in the park. I got evacuated 3 times because the fire kept moving faster and faster. I was told I needed to assist the incoming Burn Area Emergency Response (BAER) team. I was (and still am in many ways) a shy person and for the first time ever, I had to speak up in meetings, work with people I’d never met before, and talk about the results of what I found. It was just a two-week period, but it felt like forever. 

Looking back, I was definitely not emotionally mature enough to handle the stress of that position. The moment my supervisor came back, I was short-fused and eventually just broke down – I’d never experienced so much pressure before.  

But it was a great learning experience for me. I realized I was drawn to the quick-thinking required of GIS work during wildfires. Last summer I finally got signed off on my GISS wildland fire certification. [Side Note: Geographic Information System Specialists (GISS) are responsible for providing timely and accurate spatial information about the fire.] 

RFL: What drew you to the Academy program? 

MJ: When I first moved to the valley and started my new job, I had to develop an individual development plan as an employee, which laid out what I wanted to get training on and where I saw myself going. I wrote up a 5-year plan and my supervisor at the time said, “uh, I only needed 2 years!” I mentioned to him I wanted to develop my leadership skills because one of my career goals as a GIS specialist is to be a national GIS coordinator.  

He talked to me about the [RFL Academy] program and because I was new and he knew I was struggling to make friends outside of work, he recommended RFL as a great opportunity to network and make connections in the community. He nominated me for Academy. Internally I was scared, but deep down I knew I wanted this, and I knew that it would make me a better person both in the workplace and in general. 

RFL: How did your Academy experience influence your personal and professional life? 

MJ: When we were put into our civic project teams, no one wanted to be the liaison position. I said, “I’m not doing it!”. But there was a voice inside of me that was like, what are you doing Marjorie, you’re taking part in this program so you can grow, you need to do this. So, I volunteered to be the liaison – it just came out of me!  

I wasn’t comfortable in that position – being that contact person responsible for maintaining communication channels has always been so daunting for me. I was never the type to put myself out there because I had this irrational fear that people would think I was stupid or something. By being the liaison, I had to learn those communication skills – dialing in how much to say and what to say. When I’m working on a fire, that skill is especially important because time is of the essence, so you need to say things in the most concise manner.  

During RFL, I started getting better in the way I communicated – not just through email but I had opportunities to do video calls and phone calls. Ironically, I’ve always preferred face-to-face communication, so I can see people’s reactions. I was never comfortable with writing or just speaking over the phone. Practicing all those kinds of communication helped me a lot because then the pandemic hit and the way I managed to maintain communication with people was really important for my job. I worked remotely in Miami for almost 6 months and I was still able to produce the same level of work as when I was in the office.  

In my personal life, I developed the confidence to break out of my shell and learned how to communicate better with friends and family. I learned how to explain things in a way people understand and be aware of what my body language is reflecting. Being in RFL was like being in a safe sandbox for me. I never felt judged. I felt I could try different things and get feedback on what I could do better and practice that. 

RFL: You were with President Biden in October for the Camp Hale National Monument designation. What did that moment mean for you in your leadership journey? 

MJ: That experience was the experience of a lifetime! I never imagined that I’d get to shake hands with the President. I’m a GIS specialist so I’m not normally in the front of things, but I got to be for this.  

I was part of the incident management team, which handles an emergency situation should one arise. Funnily enough, a day or two before the big day, I accidentally locked the keys inside our supervisor’s truck. I didn’t know what to do and I panicked. I didn’t want to call for help. I had always thought if I asked for help, I had failed. Eventually, I was able to sort out the situation, but it was a reminder that it’s okay to ask for help.  

Overall, it showed me what I’d learned at RFL that asking for help is a gesture of maturity, not a sign of weakness. You should never feel guilty or ashamed because a leader can’t do everything – they have to depend on their team.