June 17, 2020
In higher education, lifelong learning is something of a buzzword. But for Southwestern alumnus Zack Nesbit ’13, it’s a compass that guides him along his personal and professional journey. He’s the kind of person who loves discovering new opportunities, honing different skills, immersing himself in new knowledge, diversifying his perspective, reflecting on his passions, and pursuing them without compromise—a philosophy that he’s manifested through a postgraduate career that has already included the Peace Corps, the U.S. Forest Service, public relations, and sport fishing. “I know that if I keep pursuing adventures that strike up my curiosity, it’ll be a life I look back on with no regrets,” he says.
From ranch hand to business major
Growing up on a 1,200-acre family ranch in Gonzales, Texas, about 95 miles south of Georgetown, Nesbit spent his teen years doing what us city and suburb denizens might classify articulately as “cowboy stuff”: building fences, operating farm equipment, welding, fixing water lines, managing cattle, and assisting with hunts. But when he was considering colleges, he says he was looking for “something a little more low-key than the bigger Texas schools.” Through family and friends, he had heard about Southwestern University, which, he recalls, “seemed to be a pretty good fit because I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do, but I knew SU had a great reputation educationally.” He was also drawn by the “diverse experience” the school offers, which aligned with his wide-ranging interests and passions.
Nesbit had enjoyed competing on his high school’s University Interscholastic League (UIL) accounting team, he had a knack for numbers, and he had always been interested in the foundations of business, so he spent his first four semesters at Southwestern pursuing an accounting major. He appreciated “doing everything by pencil and paper” because he could develop a deep comprehension of the fundamentals. However, he started thinking about where he wanted to be 10 years down the line, and he imagined himself as something like a 21st-century Bob Cratchit, “in an office, crunching numbers, looking at a computer screen all the time—and that … didn’t line up with the passions that I had at the time and that are still the driving force and direction in my life,” he recalls. So he shifted focus, declared business as his major, and specialized in marketing by pursuing various internships, including one at an interior-design firm in Houston and another with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Still another of those internships was with the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum in London; it’s an experience that Nesbit still speaks of in an awestruck tone nearly nine years later. While preparing to study abroad in 2011, Nesbit applied for any internship that might give him hands-on training in sports, marketing, or business, but he could never have dreamed of combining his interests while working at the All England Club, home to the oldest tennis tournament in the world. When he received word of his placement, Nesbit says, “I had to read it a few times, like ‘Surely they’re not talking about the Wimbledon?!’” He spent that fall doing outreach for the newly renovated Wimbledon museum, building monthly newsletters and helping to design a new pamphlet. And because he had so thoroughly familiarized himself with the history of the place, Nesbit was even asked to lead private tours around the archives and grounds, which, he says, “was really amazing.”
Another piece of the puzzle: The Peace Corps
During his senior year at Southwestern, Nesbit admits that he didn’t have a strong direction as graduation approached. But one December day during finals, as he was waiting for the dining hall to open, he noticed a display featuring the stories of SU alumni, and he gravitated toward one in particular who had served in the Peace Corps. As is his modus operandi, Nesbit researched the opportunity, reached out to his contacts, and decided it was “a really good fit”—a phrase he uses often when describing the various professional experiences he’s sought out over the years.
The application process took nine months, and Nesbit trusted the agency to place him where he belonged rather than stipulating specific preferences. “I really just felt like I could go anywhere and do anything, and I just wanted to roll the dice,” he remarks. After graduating from Southwestern in May 2013 and while waiting for word from the Peace Corps, Nesbit took up welding work as a mechanic in Hawaii. He was ecstatic when he finally learned that he had been assigned as a business-development volunteer to Azerbaijan, a Eurasian country on the Caspian Sea. Unfortunately, just a week before Nesbit and other volunteers were due to board a plane to attend training, they received last-minute notification that the Ministry of Education in Azerbaijan had canceled their program.
The SU alum was disappointed, of course, but he was fortunate in that he had set some money aside and could therefore afford to wait for his reassignment. He was eventually notified that he’d be posted to Paraguay. So he decided to prepare by mastering one of the country’s official languages, Spanish. He had previously studied the language in high school and at Southwestern, but Nesbit wanted to be fluent, which he knew would require immersion. He also recognized that it would be foundational for learning the country’s other official language: the indigenous tongue, Guaraní. So, true to his mantra of never compromising and always learning, he moved to Central America for three months to study in various Spanish academies.
In fall 2014, Nesbit finally arrived in Paraguay. “We landed in Asunción, which is obviously a major metropolitan area, being the capital, and we were immediately taken outside that and put in our communities,” he says. “So right away, you’re fully immersed. There’s no transitional time.” Nesbit was dropped off in Costa Lima, a fairly rural community in the Caazapá Department (similar to a state in the U.S.). He was sent to a family of dairy cattle farmers who also happened to be the town butchers. He arrived at 10:00 or 11:00 on a Friday night, and the very next morning, he woke up to a community of people waiting for a cow to be butchered and the meat delivered. “That was pretty eye opening for me, even though I’d had that experience coming from a cattle ranch,” he admits. He’d also grown up with field dressing when hunting with friends and family, he explains, “but just not to that same intense level … I’d never seen that process from start to finish with community involvement. But I just dove in, and it was a great time.”
Building relationships with people
During the next two years, Nesbit specialized in agricultural extension, which he describes as “anything from small-animal husbandry, working in greenhouses, or doing rotational grazing … [to] fruit development and grafting, beekeeping, … [or] working with schools teaching about gardening.” He spoke only Spanish and Guaraní, and the majority of the work, he adds, is done in the fields, making connections and completing agricultural projects.
Integrating into the community and building those connections would pose the greatest challenge of his service. “You have to spend quite a lot of time building rapport with people to understand what they are asking for and what they truly need,” he recounts. “The misconception of the Peace Corps is that we show up and give handouts, and that’s just not sustainable. So developing those relationships was the first hurdle.” During the early months of his service, Nesbit visited different families each day, taking part in an indigenous tradition of sharing tereré (also known as ka’ay), an infusion of water and culinary or medicinal herbs, such as lemongrass or mint. This social ritual helped the SU grad bond with his neighbors.
The rewards of beekeeping
Having earned that trust, Nesbit then had to figure out his place within that community and the work he wanted to do. He facilitated agricultural and sex-education workshops at a small junior high school a short bike ride away. He also cowrote a gardening manual—in Spanish—that would be used by community members and fellow Peace Corps volunteers.
But his true niche turned out to be beekeeping. It’s a field he had to teach himself and then train community members in. “I’d had an interest in it for quite a while, but I’d just never had an opportunity or experience to take action on it,” he says.
Initially, he attended a few training sessions offered by the Peace Corps, but after that, Nesbit again indulged his penchant for self-education by visiting the agency’s library in Asunción, checking out various books, and reading voraciously. He also initiated multiple conversations with beekeepers in the field, representatives from different agricultural agencies, and prior Peace Corps volunteers who could help him translate what he was learning into a working practice that he could then share with his community members.
Nesbit attributes his agility with learning new things in part to his college experience. “That’s something Southwestern did really well,” he reflects. “There’s such a diverse offering of courses and interests there that it teaches you how to be self-sufficient and teach yourself to become an expert in a topic.”
Beekeeping became one of the most joyous and meaningful parts of Nesbit’s experience in Paraguay. “It’s very fulfilling,” he says, because it’s “a holistic way of looking at life” that entails “respecting these small creatures that do this amazing work that goes unappreciated and unnoticed but is a foundation of life as we know it.” So being able to see bees “thrive in a hive,” as Nesbit says—including capturing and transferring a wild beehive and then nurturing a mutually beneficial relationship between the newly migrated bees and his community members so that the amateur beekeepers knew when to harvest extra honey and when to let it ripen—was “an amazing process to be a part of; I was very grateful for that.”
One of the other highlights of Nesbit’s Peace Corps experience was his work with the Peer Support Network, or PSN, which provided coaching to fellow volunteers on everything from technical skills to coping strategies for homesickness, frustration, and burnout. “There are a lot of ups and downs in the Peace Corps,” he explains. “It’s great, and it’s one of the most defining points of growth that I’ve ever pursued, but that’s not just from the great moments. Our biggest opportunities of growth happen when we’re in uncomfortable situations or when we’re down. We really have to look introspectively and address those fundamental issues that are within our own environment and making. We have to take responsibility and ownership for that, and that’s what the PSN was founded on.”
Collaborating with a friend and fellow PSN member, Nesbit designed a retreat focused on such introspection and developing a healthy mind and body during Peace Corps service. “And it was a complete disaster!” he laughs. He’s exaggerating, of course; the participants enjoyed the programming, but Nesbit reveals that the logistics were difficult to manage, and in the end, the first group completed only 2-1/2 of the 9 different activities he and his partner had originally planned. But always looking for a positive learning opportunity, Nesbit evaluated and redesigned the experience, and he and his collaborator went on to host a series of much more successful retreats. Toward the end of Nesbit’s service, he was even asked to help train new PSN members in implementing similar events across Paraguay at a number of different Peace Corps sites. Getting to learn the coach approach and then having an impact not just on his community in Costa Lima but also on other Peace Corps volunteers, Nesbit recalls, “was definitely a fulfilling experience.”
The wonders of nature and the imagination
Nesbit completed his volunteer service in November 2016, and he spent the next month and a half traveling through Peru, Colombia, and Cuba with a group of Peace Corps friends. He then returned to Texas to contemplate where his passions would lead him next.
One benefit of serving with the Peace Corps is that volunteers earn some preferential treatment when applying for government jobs. After talking with friends who worked with the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, Nesbit recognized that he had discovered his latest good fit. “I decided that would be a great reintroduction and reintegration into the States because I knew I didn’t want to jump into anything corporate or office-wise while I was figuring out the next step,” he says. So he applied to positions across the country and was hired as a wilderness first responder, forestry technician, and ranger at White River National Forest in Colorado. The work seemed like a natural extension of trips he had taken during his first- and second-year spring breaks at Southwestern: as a volunteer through what was then called Destination: Service (now Spring Breakaway), he had helped clean trails, create water breaks, rebuild a pedestrian bridge, enhance fire mitigation, and pick up trash at the Gila National Forest in New Mexico.
Nesbit loved Colorado, including the versatility of its geography and people. He worked at Maroon Bells, one of the most visited scenic areas in the country; in his first year alone, the 14,000-foot mountains, reflective glacial lake, and expansive wilderness zone attracted approximately 400,000 visitors. He was responsible for managing and restoring the campgrounds, patrolling the area to ensure visitors were complying with regulations (such as “keeping people out of the lake,” he says), educating campers about the forest and the Leave No Trace approach (to keep the grounds pristine for all visitors to enjoy), and responding to first-aid calls, for which he had undergone medical training and earned CPR certification. “I loved the work,” he recalls. “It was definitely rewarding spending my time out there, doing overnights, going into the back country, [and] talking to people … who were just wide-eyed at [their] first experience in the wild.” Having the opportunity to trek some of the most beautiful places he’d ever seen was another perk of the job, as was “helping protect that for future generations”—something Nesbit strongly supports.
The National Forest job was seasonal, lasting from May to November. So during his first winter off, he took up residence in Angel Fire, New Mexico, where he worked part-time at a country club bartending. He spent the rest of his time worldbuilding for an epic fantasy novel that started as an idea in the Peace Corps. Through the maze of his wide-ranging professional experiences, Nesbit says that the sustaining thread is his ultimate goal of writing full-time, and he has long enjoyed fantasy and medieval settings because, he shares, “I think that’s such an interesting realm to be in, but it’s also a mechanism to deliver my different philosophies and perspectives on life to a wider audience.” That ability to see philosophy through the lens of fantasy is one he fondly recalls exercising in his first-year seminar at Southwestern; he and his classmates read Elizabeth Moon’s saga The Deed of Paksenarrion as just one avenue for exploring the concept of leadership.
A constant craving for adventure
When his position at White River National Forest transitioned from outdoor ranging to indoor desk work in accounting, Nesbit knew it was yet again time to “pursue other endeavors.” He moved on to a marketing and PR firm called Rygr, which represents active lifestyle brands. He was returning to his roots as a business major, but the company’s commitment to its employees’ mental health and fitness, such as endorsing flexible work hours that allowed them to ski or hike during the day, was a major attraction for the outdoors-loving Nesbit.
In April 2019, the SU alum realized that his role at the agency no longer fulfilled his goals and values. So he packed his bags once more and moved to the Land of the Midnight Sun, where he had accepted a job as a deck master with O’Fish’ial Charters of Alaska, a sports fishing company specializing in halibut and king salmon. His off hours were devoted to writing his novel and honing his storytelling craft by taking online courses through the Gotham Writers Workshop. He enjoyed the continuing blend of outdoor life and writing in Alaska until the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the fishing and tourism industries into hiatus earlier this spring. He has since returned to Texas to help his family manage their ranch. “My next big step in pursuing my passion will be applying next year for an M.F.A. program in creative writing,” he shares. He’s especially hoping for a place at the dual-degree program hosted by Seton Hill University, in Pennsylvania, and Edinburgh Napier University, in the U.K., because of its strengths in speculative fiction. “All things aside, the story continues, as all things do,” he adds.
Through it all, Nesbit has been guided by the same commitment to chasing his curiosities and passions—and transforming that evolving vision into reality. But in his continuing quest to find the right fit for each period in his life, he says that SU was foundational in helping him bridge his many interests; it was most certainly the best fit for his college career. “Southwestern is a unique experience in that it’s a small university that brings very passionate and very bright people into one place, and those passions are very diverse,” he describes. “It really makes you want to take things to the next level: What do I really want? What are my passions? And how do I apply that to my everyday life? … Southwestern University helped me define myself further.”
Nesbit adds that he appreciates how SU improved his flexibility, adaptability, and open-mindedness, which enabled him to succeed in the Peace Corps and through the bevy of professional experiences he’s enjoyed since. As he reflects on life lessons learned, he advises others, “Don’t compromise on pursuing your passions. Obviously, there are circumstances where basic necessities need to be met, but after that, you are wholly responsible for the situation you’re in… . There are definitely easy avenues to get stuck in a routine, to do something you’re familiar with and good at, but what do you want to leave behind, and what will your great-grandkids talk about? That’s something I think about all the time, and I want to say I pursued my passions and my dreams to the fullest until it just didn’t work anymore, until something else took its place, but until that point, I gave it everything I have.”