From Zoo Teen to Team Zoo

Helen A. Lee
November 14, 2022
Helen A. Lee
November 14, 2022
Lincoln Park Zoo’s teen programs allow students in Grades 8-12 to participate in conservation activities, learn about future careers, and gain experience in fields like education and research. Participating teens also become part of the zoo family, which gives them access to mentors, peers who share their interests, and a network to support them in the future. For example, alumni return to the zoo each year for a reunion. Alums also assist with recruitment and planning, are invited back as speakers, can opt-in to receive updates (including job postings and animal updates) from the zoo, and receive memberships. And, as evidenced by a couple of the teen alums profiled here, they may even someday become full-time zoo staff!

Lincoln Park Zoo’s teen programs allow students in Grades 8-12 to participate in conservation activities, learn about future careers, and gain experience in fields like education and research. Participating teens also become part of the zoo family, which gives them access to mentors, peers who share their interests, and a network to support them in the future. For example, alumni return to the zoo each year for a reunion. Alums also assist with recruitment and planning, are invited back as speakers, can opt-in to receive updates (including job postings and animal updates) from the zoo, and receive memberships. And, as evidenced by a couple of the teen alums profiled here, they may even someday become full-time zoo staff!

Teen programs currently running at Lincoln Park Zoo include:

Malott Family Zoo Intern Program

This program allows high school students who live in the city of Chicago to become paid zoo interns, or ZIPs. You’ll see them during their seven-week summer program on-grounds engaging in informal education opportunities— basically, teaching the public about animal science and conservation.

Counselor-in Training

High schoolers who join this paid program, called CITs, work alongside Camp Counselors and Camp Teen Volunteers to run Conservation Camp each day. Conservation Camp is the zoo’s summer camp for PreK-Grade 4 children, so this is a high-energy job that gives them experience in working with elementary-aged students.

Malott Family Research Apprenticeship Program

Residents of Chicago who are in Grades 10-12 can become RAPs. These paid interns participate in a seven-week paid program that lets them work alongside zoo researchers engaging in scientific endeavors. They are based in one of the zoo’s science centers.

Conservation Ambassadors Board

As a CAB member, Chicago teens can learn more about the zoo and its conservation initiatives, while planning projects and events to share with their peers and the general public. This program lets teens sharpen leadership skills in areas like finance, marketing, event planning, and learning.

Camp Teen Volunteer

These volunteers, also called CTVs, earn service hours for spending five weeks assisting the day-to-day running of Conservation Camp. They help with and participate in camp activities, participate in professional development, and can join in a Recognition Night at the end of their session to celebrate their work.

Zoo Club

This free, remote experience lets teens from all over the world connect to each other and to the zoo remotely in sessions that help them build animal care, communitybuilding, and conservation skills. They learn from zoo experts, practice new skills, and earn digital badges to earn zoo rewards.



Gabriela Guzmán

Favorite Animal

Hoffman’s Two-Toed Sloths

Favorite Place at the Zoo

Regenstein African Journey

Teen Experience

Summer Zoo Camp Volunteer, Malott Family Zoo Intern Program

Current Position

Learning Administrative Coordinator

Teen program alumna Gaby Guzmán, a native of Chicago’s Little Village, turned a 2012 stint as a summer Zoo Camp volunteer and then a 2013 experience as a member of the Malott Family Zoo Intern Program (ZIP) at Lincoln Park Zoo into a full-time job. She’s one of the zoo’s newest employees, working in the Hurvis Family Learning Center as the Learning department’s Administrative Coordinator.

“Ever since I was young, I’ve wanted to be around animals and learn about them. As I grew older, I wanted to work with animals and care for them, but those opportunities were very limited as a young teenager living in an urban city,” Guzmán explains. “The ZIP program assisted with helping me realize that there are a number of different careers within the animal field, not just veterinarians. It helped me expand my knowledge and my love for wildlife and conservation.”

She says she has been inspired by some of the zoo’s past work, such as its initiative in vaccinating domestic dogs in the Serengeti to keep that ecosystem healthier for people and wildlife, and found lessons at Nature Boardwalk memorable— as the time she learned the meaning of the word “Chicago.” When she graduated from Infinity Math, Science & Technology High School, she went to the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, to pursue her childhood job of being a veterinarian.

After graduating in 2017, she started working with the shelter PAWS Chicago, where she had volunteered since 2013, eventually becoming a vet tech. Her job included prepping animals for surgery, assisting in surgeries, and pulling controlled drugs to safely induce patients for surgery. “I was asking questions, I was staying later to help others out, and (the staff ) saw that I wanted to learn and I wanted to grow,” she says.

Eventually, the chief veterinarian at PAWS left to start a new clinic and start consulting, taking Guzmán with her. However, after that business stalled due to logistical issues, Guzmán pivoted into a totally different career: law. She applied to a law firm and became a legal assistant and office manager.

When she learned about the open position at the zoo, Guzmán figured it was “a perfect circle” for her, with her administration and animal experience, and a return to where she’d started. These days, she coordinates events, schedules meetings, manages finances, and “makes sure everyone feels safe,” she says. “My day isn’t always the same, it’s constantly changing. In broad terms, I provide operational support within my department in hopes of helping things run more efficiently and smoothly.”

And while it’s not what she thought she’d be doing, she has no regrets about changing careers. So far, she likes the people and the environment, the amount of training she gets, and the social opportunities, such as an end-of-summer event she attended that was hosted by the zoo’s Culture & Inclusion committee. She says, “Although I’m not working with animals directly, I’m facilitating those programs that do reach out to teens and kids, and we’re getting them involved in conservation. It’s important to educate kids and teens because I don’t think enough people care about the environment, animals, and the consequences of our actions.”



Lynne Pavletic

Favorite Animal

African Lions, Western Lowland Gorillas, and Polar Bears

Favorite Place at the Zoo

Regenstein Center for African Apes

Teen Experience

Malott Family Zoo Intern Program, Conservation Ambassadors Board

Summer 2022 Position

Malott Family Zoo Intern Program (ZIP) Facilitator

Although she’s at the beginning of a career that’s surely taking her places, there’s one thing 2022 ZIP facilitator Lynne Pavletic knows—Lincoln Park Zoo is home.

Pavletic began her official association with Lincoln Park Zoo in 2015, as a rising high school sophomore. She was part of the Malott Family Zoo Intern Program (ZIP) that year, but also participated in the inaugural year of the Conservation Ambassadors Board (CAB) and did another year as part of CAB as well. This year, as a newly-minted graduate of University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, she decided to return while she figured out the next steps in her career.

In summer 2022, Pavletic acted as ZIP facilitator, supervising the seven-week paid internship in which 20 or so Chicago high school students get to learn about the zoo while educating others about animal and conservation science. You may have seen Pavletic on the zoo’s Instagram this past August introducing some of the ZIPs and the mobile learning station about black-crowned night herons.

“I’m someone the ZIPs can rely on if they have questions and concerns,” Pavletic says of her role as ZIP facilitator, which included mentoring and teaching lessons. “I’m a known face for them, with insight from when I was a ZIP. Because my experience was like theirs, I think they find that incredibly helpful.”

Pavletic hails from the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago, where Lincoln Park Zoo has partnerships and deep roots. She went to high school at Lane Tech College Prep, where she found out about ZIP from one of her friends. She credits the internship program with “literally saving my life, which has made me want to give back and provide inspiration like I was given.”

She says that she spent much of her childhood wanting to get out of the South Side. “You feel helpless sometimes,” she says, noting that her mother was bringing her and her brother up alone, and she felt that her options for the future would be limited.

However, becoming part of the Lincoln Park Zoo family and learning how to engage with guests, gave her more perspective—even though she traveled 1.5 hours to get here. “Positivity is contagious,” Pavletic notes. “I loved learning about everything about the zoo. It’s a happy place here and you feel it. It has affected me for the rest of my life and given me a connection to my neighborhood, and I’m grateful for that.”

Now, Pavletic has more confidence in her future, her own personal skills, and her own ability to deal with change. And since leaving the zoo in August, she’s already leveraged those skills into a new job with DePuy Synthes, the orthopedic arm of Johnson & Johnson. There, Pavletic is a Trauma Sales Associate; she provides clinical and customer support as a point of reference for surgeons using the company’s products. Her job includes building and maintaining relationships and providing technical expertise. With what she’s learned at the zoo, we’re expecting to hear great things about her in the future.



Ja’lia Sheppard

Favorite Animal

Polar Bears

Favorite Place at the Zoo

Regenstein Macaque Forest Conference Room

Teen Experience

Career Explorer – Horticulture

Summer 2022 Position

Public Horticulture Intern

Back in 2014, Ja’lia Sheppard had her first experience with the Horticulture department here at Lincoln Park Zoo. It was a two-week Career Explorer program, offering an administrative, educational perspective as she shadowed a horticulturalist. Once this program was completed, she graduated from high school and went on to Denison University.

After graduating with a Chemistry degree in 2019, she went out into the professional world. Sheppard worked for three years as a chemist at a pharmaceutical company, but decided she didn’t like the industry as much as she loved pure chemistry. So she decided to make a career switch—and that led her back to Lincoln Park Zoo.

In summer 2022, she was back doing horticulture again, but this time, she did a deeper dive into the topic. This internship was more research and fieldwork-based, and she was able to put together a project focusing on native plant species and pollinator interactions. This required her to develop a plan, define protocols, and develop from scratch a project that can be continued in future seasons by additional interns and staff members.

She did this while shadowing the Horticulture team, exploring landscape planning and design, and exploring new professional paths. “Taking advantage of this opportunity has provided me with a lot of clarity in my career goals. It has inspired me to potentially pursue a graduate degree in environmental engineering and jump-start a career in ecological restoration,” she says.

As the Public Horticulture Intern, Sheppard’s job included daily tasks like going out to make observations at Nature Boardwalk, doing data analysis, and helping out with other tasks such as watering, mulching, and otherwise “making the zoo look pretty.” If you were out here this summer, you know that she and the Horticulture staff did an amazing job with that.

What did she love about the work? Being outside, enjoying summer, and experiencing something other than the 9-to-5 grind in an office. “We were at the end of this parking lot pulling weeds, and there were three other Horticulture teams out there, having casual conversation in a shady spot. It was just kind of nice—I’ve never had a moment like that in a professional setting before,” Sheppard shares. “This is the way people should feel at work when getting a task done, when pulling weeds.”

As Sheppard navigates the present—she’s teaching English at a bilingual high school in Madrid, Spain until next June—and considers her future, she thinks her horticulture background might be a versatile one that can springboard her into the next chapter of her life, whatever that looks like. She’s definitely interested in the planning of public spaces, in sustainability, and in issues surrounding alternate sources of energy that can combat climate change.

Sheppard also believes that engaging in things she is passionate about will help her accomplish her goals. Sheppard advises, “As long as there’s some kind of passion about it for you, I think you should chase that, even though it’s hard and you’re bound to fail. Choose your hard, be open to new experiences, and make sure you find what you’re passionate about.”



Hannah Xie

Favorite Animal


Favorite Place at the Zoo

McCormick Bird House

Teen Experience

Conservation Ambassadors Board

Summer 2022 Position

Conservation Camp Counselor

Hannah Xie is a young student with a bright future and a resume that includes multiple stints at Lincoln Park Zoo. She’s considering majoring in political science and minoring in computer science and Chinese at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she’s currently a sophomore. She’s also thinking about a career in law—maybe environmental—but she’s got time to figure that out.

Xie may not be certain exactly what she wants to be when she gets out of college, but she knows this: “Later on, I want to be able to work with other people, be knowledgeable about the environment, and be able to teach groups of people,” she says.

Xie first joined the zoo during her senior year as a member of the Conservation Ambassadors Board; she and her fellow team members organized two virtual conferences about conservation and sustainability efforts around the world. “It was there that I really got into conservation and learned about ways where I could personally contribute to conserving wildlife,” she says. “I just found it a very encouraging environment to learn and grow in.”

Now, just a few years later, she’s back. She says she wanted to continue in that environment, which is why she returned—to teach conservation to a different type of audience. Instead of public speaking and outreach, the skills she has been utilizing this past summer as a Conservation Camp counselor “meant more curriculum planning and connecting with a (quite literally) smaller group of people for a longer period of time,” she says.

Her job included working with a co-counselor and a counselor-in-training to keep children occupied with nature-based learning activities throughout the day. She notes that her work this past summer included keeping everyone safe and having fun, while keeping their curiosity intact and helping them stay engaged with different games and activities.

While most of the materials she and her co-counselors use are provided by the zoo’s Learning Department, the job also allows her some creativity. Xie relates how, one afternoon as kids were being picked up by caregivers, she and her co-counselor developed an activity in which every child added something new to an illustration of an animal before they left for the day. Since not all the kids would see the end result before they go, the counselors left it on the board so they could all view the finished animal the following day.

And while she’s been shepherding them around to animal habitats, playing with them outside, and helping them experience child-led play, Xie has been learning herself. Not only is observing her fellow camp counselors helping her to become a better educator and guide, she’s learning more about children (she says she’s learned kids are like adults, “but with a lot more excitement and a little more impulsiveness”) and about herself.

“I’ve been more open to talking with other people, and more excited for other people’s successes and the things that they enjoy,” she says. “I feel like this will help me better connect and empathize with other people, especially when they need someone to support them.”



Jadea Branch

Favorite Animal

White-Cheeked Gibbons

Favorite Place at the Zoo

Rainbow Cone (Seasonal)

Teen Experience

Malott Family Zoo Internship Program

Current Position

Community Programs Lead

Jaeda Branch once thought everyone who worked at zoos had to be interested in hands-on work with animals. And although she loves animals, she knew she didn’t necessarily want that kind of career. However, thanks to the opportunities provided her through the Malott Family Zoo Internship Program (ZIP), she realized that her work could still include zoos—even if she didn’t want to be a keeper.

“Things changed when I found out you could teach people about animals,” Branch says. “After I was a ZIP, I told my family I wanted to be an informal educator for the rest of my life.” Branch has now been an employee at Lincoln Park Zoo for almost four and a half years. She is the Community Programs Lead here at the zoo.

While she was living in the Ashburn neighborhood and attending Morgan Park High School, Branch developed an interest in environmental issues. When her mother wanted her to find a job the summer before her junior year, she applied to the zoo and got accepted. The ZIP experience allowed her to learn about animals and then interpret them to guests.

Next, Branch attended the University of Chicago and graduated in 2018 with a degree in comparative human development. But before she even left school, she already had a job lined up— at Lincoln Park Zoo! She’d heard that the zoo was looking for a Community Learning Facilitator and got the job.

She was promoted to her lead position in 2020, helping coordinate the zoo’s community engagement initiatives in the North Lawndale neighborhood. The zoo works with community organizations and residents there to create change that benefits people as well as wildlife.

“A lot of my job is co-creating programs with community members, based on what they want for their neighborhood,” Branch explains. “We also attend and facilitate community meetings. I spend more time in the community than zoo grounds.”

Branch was deeply involved in the creation of Douglass 18, a mini-golf course in North Lawndale imagined and designed by teenagers. This project was supported by multiple partners to help build a sense of community in the area while bringing awareness of the 205 species of birds that migrate to that location each year. Her duties included writing lesson plans to help the teens understand the importance of the local birds.

“Just being the one who taught the team about the birds so they could create signage and other aspects of each of the holes was an accomplishment—I taught them. I inspired them to care about these birds,” she marvels.

Today, much of her work also includes the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council (NLCCC) Greening Open Space Water and Sustainability (GROWSS) Youth Council. This initiative aims to create confident leaders who help build relationships with each other, their neighbors, and nature to create a healthier, more vibrant community. Over the summer, she led a weekly program with seven high school students teaching them about community garden stewardship and conservation as well as connecting to nature through photography.

And all this, Branch believes, is possible because of her ZIP experience. She says, “The ZIP helped me to be able to facilitate for a wide range of ages. I was really shy—I’m still shy, but it helped a lot with being able to be braver and to talk out loud, to be more comfortable with my voice. All of those are skills I learned as a ZIP.”