Published: April 11, 2019
First-Year Student Jumps into Volunteer Experience with Florida Aquarium
As Jess Larson ’21 stepped into the warm tank of water, sting rays began brushing at her feet. Grabbing a handful of fish, she dipped her hand below the surface, feeling the smooth underbellies of the rays as they grazed her palms. Larson smiled, feeling lucky to be doing what she had dreamed about as a kid.
“My parents would take me to the aquarium when I was just a little girl,” said Larson, a marine science-biology major with a minor in chemistry. “Ever since then, I’ve dreamed of working in an aquarium and educating others about the sea creatures.”
This spring, Larson joined the Animal Ambassadors’ Team at the Florida Aquarium in downtown Tampa. In this position, she cleans habitats, cuddles with penguins and swims with sting rays, among other responsibilities.
As a first-year student at The University of Tampa, Larson took a Pathways to Honors course in the fall of 2018 where she was required to work a number of volunteer hours.
“I didn’t plan on working with an aquarium for another few semesters, but my class really pushed me to reach out to the Florida Aquarium right away, and I’m so happy I did,” said Larson, who began volunteering in November, where she was responsible for preparing food for the birds.
“This has been the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had,” said Larson, of Spring Hill, FL. “Working with animals so closely has been something I’ve also wanted to do later in life, but having this experience in my first year of college has been even more exciting.”
In addition to cleaning and caring for many of the aquarium’s animals, Larson is involved in a new program as well, the Handling Program. In this program she’s learned how to hold and handle animals, including the rare Mexican Spiny Tailed Iguana. She now holds a selection of animals, displays them to visitors for meet and greets, and educates and answers any questions.
“Any day where I’m hands on with the animals is a great day,” said Larson. “I would love to be an aquarium keeper or a marine veterinarian later in life, so having my foot in the door in the position I am in now is perfect.”
Larson said she wants to be involved with the Florida Aquarium for as long as possible and as much as she can throughout her years at UT.
“I have always wanted to be involved with an aquarium, but really it was my Honors Pathways course that gave me that extra push to get involved,” said Larson. “I wouldn’t have had any of these experiences, and it could’ve turned out differently if I didn’t have that class to help me get started.”
Story by Sydney Rhodes '21, journalism major