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Securing America’s Future:

The Power of Liberal Arts Education

Bernadette Coutain Plair

Research Scientist; Founder and Director of the Centre for the Rescue of Endangered Species of Trinidad and Tobago
College of Mount St. Joseph (OH), Class of 1967
Bernadette Coutain Plair is a research scientist who specialized in the conservation of endangered species at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW). In 1993, she founded the Centre for the Rescue of Endangered Species of Trinidad and Tobago and began her work to reintroduce the blue and gold macaws, a once thriving species, to her home of Trinidad.
 
In 1999, Plair was able to release 14 wild-caught blue and gold macaws from Guyana into Trinidad, continuing with the transport, acclimation, and release of several dozen more over the next decade. She also has worked to strengthen the community and education components of her project by leading nine educational field expeditions to the macaw release site in Trinidad. Largely due to her work, there are now more than 100 blue-and-gold macaws in the wild. Plair released a documentary explaining her work, The Blue and the Gold, which was submitted for the 2013 Trinidad+Tobago film festival.
 
Upon her graduation from the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in biology, Plair continued her education at the University of Cincinnati, eventually earning her master’s degree. Following this, she worked in several research institutions such as the University of Illinois, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, Wright State University, and Becton Dickinson Polymer Research Company.
My liberal arts education has made me stronger and more resilient than I had expected in my career and personal life. Personally, I learned to think before acting and become informed before making decisions; I also learned to use sound judgment and to work hard with commitment. Professionally, I learned to evaluate every situation with honesty and integrity, to set and achieve realistic goals that were worthy of my values, and to work toward the common good rather than seek self-satisfaction. My liberal arts education also taught me to reason, write, and communicate effectively.
 
During my four years in residence on campus, I was surrounded by students from seven different countries and was myself a foreign student. Exploring life’s big questions became a global experience for me. It raised my awareness of the benefits of diversity and the importance of sharing experiences. Whether in or out of class, my peers were always welcoming and informative. They reached out to make me feel comfortable and avoid getting homesick. Today, 50 years later, I am still closely bonded with many of those classmates.

My liberal arts education has made me stronger and more resilient than I had expected in my career and personal life. 

Although a biology major, I also took courses in philosophy, theology, ethics, music, and art history among others. I not only enjoyed my learning experience but developed the ability to think critically, make sound judgments, and awaken my creative imagination. The broader my learning experience, the more connected topics seemed.
 
Faculty members played an important role in my college experience. The only science course I had in high school was biology, and I had to be tutored in math, chemistry, and physics. My professors were patient and gave unstintingly of their time, tutoring me so that I could pursue my desired major. Their dedication and example instilled in me the determination to do the same for others who need help. Today, I make every effort in my professional and personal life to help students who need that extra coaching, and I strongly advocate for women and under-represented and disadvantaged students.
 
I know that I could not have achieved my success if I did not have the foundation, encouragement, and support that I received in college. Today, I aim to inspire my students, colleagues, and community to create what they want for themselves from within, the same way that my college community inspired me on its small liberal arts campus.
 
I found a job directly after graduation teaching high school. From there, I transitioned to clinical and scientific research, environmental education, and global conservation. My education was greatly valued by my hiring managers because I was able to teach a broad range of subjects with confidence and passion.
 
My passion is working with animals, plants, and humans to protect and preserve the environment. My biology degree opened the doors to my career while my non-science courses provided me with the tools to gain community involvement, network with collaborators, and overall make a difference in this world. I achieved my lifelong dream of restoring an avian species to its original habitat after it was extirpated from the wild in my native country.
 
My advice to parents of high school students is to look for quality education, integrity, and ethical leadership when choosing a college. I would advise the student to become accountable for his or her own advancement. Don’t shut yourself off from the possibility of other interesting conclusions by focusing on a specific area of study. Don’t rule out the potential of the undiscovered destinations that a liberal arts education can offer.
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