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Spartan Profiles: Jessica Pociak

  • Author:
    Davi Napolean
  • Published:
    Winter 2015

            Jessica Pociask lives in Traverse City. In 2007, she earned a bachelor’s degree from MSU’s College of Agriculture and National Resources, majoring in sustainable parks, recreation and tourism. WANT Expeditions offers tours for the MSU Alumni Association.


            In 2013, when the board of the Wildlife Conservation Society wanted an experienced guide to take them to a project they were developing just outside the city of Bayanga in Central Africa, they called on Jessica Pociask, founder and owner of Wildlife and Nature Travel (WANT) Expeditions. She couldn’t have known the government would collapse before their visit was over, but when it did, she stayed calm, chartered a new airplane and mapped out multiple evacuations.  

            That was nothing new. While traveling through Central America in 2002, she was pulled off a bus at gunpoint. And in Mali in 2012, Pociask’s group was caught in a coup d’etat and trapped in Bomako for a week while she found a way to get everyone out safely.

            Pociask never panics. “When you’re in charge of taking care of people, you focus on them and not on yourself,” she says. Her company has been leading groups on personalized, conservation-oriented trips since 2007. Travelers can swim with grey whales, encounter tigers in the wild, observe little bee-eaters—they’re birds—and much more, communing with, as WANT’s website says, “the most amazing natural phenomena that exist on the planet.”

            “We get people in and out of places that are off the beaten path,” she adds. “If you try to make it too safe, it takes away from the experience.” Those who travel in her groups of 12-16 know they are heading to destinations with little tourist infrastructure. She teams with local guides and finds experts who enrich the experience by conducting seminars on topics that include botany, ornithology, biology andarea history. Her groups participate in local ceremonies, dress as community members do and enjoy traditional cuisine.

            Pociask, who’sexpeditions in almost 80 countries, became fascinated with wildlife early on. She recalls pouring over her grandfather’s copies of National Geographic. Insect collections filled the house; animals came home with her. But it was when she studied natural resources management at Michigan State University that she began to see herself as an educator and guide who could take people to places she had only read about.

            A college trip to Antarcticato study climate change excited her. Then, a 10-day spring adventure to Mexico led by Richard Dale Paulsen, associate professor in the Department of Community Sustainability, connected her to people and places in a way a traditional tour could not. “She was enthusiastic to learn about other cultures and experience other environments,” says Paulson.  Before the trips, students raised funds for agencies they were to visit. “She set a significant goal and reached it,” he adds.

            Currently, when not guiding tours, she’s pursuing a master’s degree in environmental sciences at John Hopkins University and doing research at the Smithsonian. She also works on projects with women in indigenous communities. “It’s been shown when you can empower women, it has a greater impact and is longer standing,” she says.

            “I’m really fortunate to have created a career out of something I love,” she says. “I get a chance to share the world with people! It’s not a typical career path and there are trade-offs, but it is an amazing life.”