"Everything about it is fun," the Hardenville resident said. "It's outdoors, not inside, you get to create the spots where you can hunt and I'll be getting paid to do something I enjoy doing."
The 2011 graduate of Gainesville High School will earn his Associate of Arts in General Studies degree from Missouri State University-West Plains in December. He plans to transfer to Missouri State University in Springfield to complete a bachelor's degree in conservation and wildlife management. After graduation, he hopes to work with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) or a privately-owned company as a private land manager, helping property owners create and improve wildlife habitat on their land.
Austin grew up hunting and fishing like many in the Ozarks do and he said he wants to do what he can to preserve that way of life. "It's not about killing animals. It's about helping out the wildlife," he said. As a private land manager, he can work with landowners to help ensure there is plenty of food and habitat to keep wildlife healthy and abundant while monitoring and taking steps to weed out animals that may be diseased. He's already helped do just that as a seasonal employee with MDC the past two years. "I've helped put out food plots, sprayed herbicides on invasive plants and conducted deer and furbearers surveys," he said. In addition, he helped manage 5,000 acres of prescribed fires in the Caney Mountain and Drury Mincy Conservation Areas to destroy underbrush so that healthy plants could grow back to provide food and nesting areas for wildlife.
During summer 2012, Austin helped MDC officials fight several area wildfires that were exacerbated by drought conditions. One, near South Fork in southwestern Howell County, was caused by an open door on a trailer being pulled down the highway. Sparks from the metal dragging along the road quickly lighted parched grass in the right-of-way. Others were on land owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers near the region's lakes.
Austin was given the opportunity to pursue a different dream in high school. An all-conference honoree catcher with the Gainesville Bulldogs, Austin played in Missouri's senior all-star game in St. Charles, and his coach offered to help him pursue baseball scholarships at several area colleges, including College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Mo. "The fact that Missouri State-West Plains was close to home and I could use my A+ here was a big factor in my decision," he explained. "My A+ made it affordable for me to go to college." Missouri State-West Plains' TRiO Student Support Services program helped him succeed after he arrived, he added. "Neither one of my parents went to college, so TRiO was really helpful. The staff helped me know where I needed to go and provided tutoring, and they've helped me with all of my paperwork to transfer to Springfield," he explained.
Although he had other options, Austin said he is happy with his decision to attend Missouri State-West Plains. "I got to work for the state while I was here, so it gave me the opportunity to get my foot in the door for my career."