A former journalist has taken a leap of faith into her dream career with the help of Northumberland College and Natural England.

Ceris Aston had spent years chasing stories and hitting deadlines, all the while dreaming of a more freeing career which would enable her to spend more time in the great outdoors.

When an opportunity presented itself to become a Natural England volunteer at Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve, which includes the Holy Island of Lindisfarne and 65km of Northumberland coastline, Ceris decided to take the plunge and go for it, not knowing where it would lead her.

“I had managed to save up a bit over the years so when the opportunity arose, I just went for it,” Ceris said.

“I have always loved being outdoors, especially at the coast, so working at Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve is absolutely fantastic. Joining Natural England as a volunteer, I supported the team with habitat management for the variety of birds which the National Nature Reserve is famous for, and helped to run outreach events on Holy Island.

“After a few months of volunteering, I was offered an apprenticeship through Natural England to help me gain the accreditation I need to become a fully-qualified Reserve Warden. In this line of work, apprenticeships are so important, you simply wouldn’t get the same level of understanding about conservation and the work associated with it from a purely academic setting. Getting hands-on and learning while on the job provides the perfect balance.”

The formal academic element of Ceris’ apprenticeship is being delivered by Northumberland College. Enrolled on a Level 2 City and Guilds accredited course in Environment Conservation, Ceris was able to select her own modules of study from a set framework to successfully tailor the qualification around her employer’s needs.

With a heavy focus on land management, conservation and habitat works, Ceris is able to complete the majority of her studies remotely, using the College’s Smart Assessor portal to submit online evidence to support the various different modules.

Once every three weeks, Ceris’ work is assessed on-site by her skills coach tutor, Paddy Smith, who travels up to the reserve on Lindisfarne to see her putting her theoretical learning into practice.

“Ceris is a truly outstanding student,” Paddy said.

“Both capable and driven, she knows exactly what she wants and how to get it, I am just there to guide her.

“As part of my observations and assessments, Ceris has had me take part in plant and wildlife surveys, join a rescue search for some seal pups which had been washed ashore, as well as take part in a night watch of some common shrews which are becoming increasingly endangered across England.

“The diverse range of practical experience that Ceris has gained during her apprenticeship has helped her immensely. Because she is able to apply her theory-based learning to her work on the reserve on a daily basis, Ceris is already ahead of where we would expect learners to be at this stage in the course.”

Andrew Craggs, Natural England’s senior reserve manager at Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve, added: “Ceris has slotted into the team and continues to make great progress in all parts of our work.

“I’m pleased that her dedication and flexibility is being formally recognised.”

Set to complete the course in August 2019, Ceris is hoping to secure a full-time position working in nature conservation once she qualifies.

“Making the transition from journalist to conservationist has been a complete life shift!” Ceris added.

“Working out of doors has got so many health and wellbeing benefits associated with it. I enjoyed my time working in an office environment but I am definitely better suited to the role I’m in now, none of which would have been possible without Natural England and Northumberland College. I’d like to personally thank my tutor, Paddy Smith for sharing his knowledge and expertise and having so much belief in me.

“I’ve been so fortunate to be able to work as part of a small and supportive team at Natural England, learning every day from the expertise of my line manager and colleagues at Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve and across the Northumbria team – I am so grateful to them all.

“The level of faith you need to make a leap like this is quite incredible, but I am so glad I did it.”

As part of Northumberland College’s planned celebrations for National Apprenticeship Week (4-8 March 2019), the College is holding its inaugural Apprenticeship Recognition Awards for local businesses and apprentices alike. With over 80 applicants across the programme, in recognition of her achievements at Natural England, Ceris has been shortlisted in the Apprentice of the Year category.

With campuses situated across the county, Northumberland College is one of the North East’s leading providers of further and higher education programmes, apprenticeships and vocational courses.

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