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Prairie Land Conservationist Hilary Haley Finds Her Way With MS in GIS


NWMS M.S. GIS student Hilary Haley

As the first in the family to earn an academic degree, Hilary Haley went on to add several more. She is on track to complete Northwest Missouri State University's Master of Science in Geographic Information Science (GIS) online program in June 2022.

Haley has used her education to keep growing within her career in land management and prairie conservation. She holds a bachelor's in environmental science and biology from Drury University and a master's in ecology and evolutionary biology from Iowa State University.

She runs a small business as a native seed producer. With the onset of the pandemic, it became especially clear to Haley that an additional degree in GIS would allow her to keep working in conservation. It wasn't long before she decided to enroll in Northwest's online M.S. in GIS program.

"With everyone staying at home and a little extra time on my hands, I figured this was the perfect time to get started," she said.

As Haley's previous studies were all in person, she knew there would be a few technology hurdles to overcome in the online format. Once in, she found that it didn't take her long to acclimate.

During orientation, she got comfortable using Northwest's learning management system, Canvas. She can now easily communicate with professors and other students as well as find assignments. With a little online experience under her belt, she sees the full perks of studying from home.

"I've enjoyed online programming tremendously because it's a big timesaver. When I did in-person classes, I had a two-hour drive to get to that campus. That's a lot of wasted time in the car," she said. "It's really nice to eliminate the commute and fit coursework into my schedule."

The Plot Thickens

The first course Haley took in Northwest's online M.S. in GIS program was GEOG 32602: Principles of GIS. "It got me more excited about the rest of the program," she said. "The class was especially thorough and organized."

She appreciates how responsive her professor Dr. Yi-Hwa (Eva) Wu was and calls her "fabulous."

"I can't tell you the number of times that I would submit an assignment, and it would be graded an hour later… even late at night. I was not expecting that at all," Haley said. "And Professor Wu was there with comments and responses and joined in on the conversations that we had online. It was really great to see that she was so present even though it's a remote learning class.

"Northwest has courses for every different area of GIS that you might be interested in doing. Choosing your own path is so much more interesting than just checking off a list of required classes. I'm really looking forward to the other classes."

Haley is especially eager to take GEOG 32641: Geoprocessing with Python, so she can gain expertise with ArcGIS, a cloud-based mapping and analytics solution.

"I've always wanted to learn how to use ArcGIS and be able to do a lot of the land management activities that I've previously done more manually," she said.

The tool will enable her to track seed collection efforts as well as compile and display the information in a more organized, shareable format.

The Butterfly Effect

After a year as a native plant nursery manager and 11 years doing prairie restoration and conservation for the Nature Conservancy, Haley knew she was in the right field. Through her internship with the McHenry County Conservation District in Illinois, she learned about prairies, native plants and restoration work.

"I fell in love with that type of work and that environment," she said. "I actually started out as an architecture major and really enjoyed it. That's part of why the GIS program is so interesting to me. That design factor of defining our spaces for how we plan to use them is so neat to me."

Haley switched over to the environmental side to focus on the outdoors, animals and the interconnectedness of it all. She values being able to "go outside and name what the plants are, what the butterflies are, what the bees are."

"It gives a lot more meaning to life when you know all the little bits and pieces that are around you and how they fit together," she said.

Full Bloom

On graduating from Northwest, Haley plans to do conservation work more focused on land management analysis and the impact of land work on the environment. Ultimately, she'd like to pursue a career as a GIS analyst or an environmental consultant.

For now, she is focused on being a student and selling seeds — mostly forbs.

"It's just a shorthand way of saying flowering plants," she said. "Some of my favorites are coneflowers and, of course, rattlesnake master."

Haley is very happy with her decision to attend Northwest and recommends the online M.S. GIS program to others.

"It's one of the more highly rated GIS programs in the United States, and it's been incredibly organized so far. I say, 'Go for it.' It's a really affordable program, and I wish I'd done this sooner."

In her spare time, Haley enjoys fishing, hiking, exploring natural areas, playing with her cats and spending time with her fiancé as they prepare for their September wedding.

"We have been looking at some acreage to be able to set up our own seed production nursery so we can continue what I've started as a great side job."

Learn more about Northwest Missouri State University's M.S. in GIS online program.



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