When the coordinator for the Disney World internship program asked to chat, Sara Thuston thought she only made it through the first round of screenings. She had already gone through an hour-long interview, but when the next call came, she was geared up for another one-hour session.
She found a tucked-away spot in the MU Student Center and awaited the ring.
What she thought was another set of questions turned out to be a job offer to serve as a plant science intern at “the happiest place on Earth:” Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
“I was so shocked. I immediately started crying,” Thuston said. “I accepted right away.”
‘Above and beyond’
The Kirkwood, Missouri, native will graduate in December with a degree in environmental science with an emphasis in water quality. Coming into college, though, she was not quite set on a particular major. It ended up being childhood memories that led her to the School of Natural Resources (SNR).
While her peers were watching SpongeBob SquarePants, Thuston remembers watching Steve Irwin, a.k.a “The Crocodile Hunter” on Animal Planet or passing time in her dad’s garden.
“Ever since I was a little kid I’ve always enjoyed being outside, being in nature,” Thuston said. “When a lot of little kids my age were watching TV or playing video games, I always wanted to play outside or walk in a creek.”
It didn’t take long for Thuston to pair her passion with a major.
When it came time for planning classes for the spring semester of her junior year, she realized most of the classes she needed to graduate were only offered during fall sessions. Instead of filling her schedule with classes, she decided to fulfill the internship requirement of graduation.
Despite the fact that her job at the MU Soil and Plant Testing Lab would have satisfied the requirement, she wanted to try something new, get out of her comfort zone and go for something big.
“It was a big deal to take off a whole semester to do an internship,” Laura Hertel, coordinator of student services for SNR, said. “That was above and beyond.”
Day to day
Thuston has been working at Disney World since January and will not head home until June.
Every morning she leaves Disney’s housing complex, where she lives with other interns, before arriving at 7:30 a.m. to the largest greenhouse in the park at Epcot’s Living with the Land attraction. This exhibit features a boat tour through the greenhouses highlighting things like nine-pound lemons and Mickey Mouse-shaped pumpkins.
Thuston said her main job is simple: To make sure everything looks amazing.
All of the plant science interns are stationed at different greenhouses making sure that every one of the 150 different varieties of plants are ready for viewing. When she is not pruning and pollinating each individual plant (because there are no bees in the attraction), she is giving tours to park guests, explaining greenhouse operations and discussing sustainable agriculture.
“I can take science information and put it into terms that a 5-year-old would understand and that a 50-year-old won’t find boring,” Thuston said.
Any given day, Thuston is meeting people from all across the world and bonding over their shared loves of nature and Disney.
“It’s been a really amazing opportunity and that’s why I want to come back,” she said.
That’s certainly one option. In addition to returning to Disney for a water science or educational outreach internship, Thuston is considering graduate school, living abroad and joining the Peace Corps.
“I’m not in a hurry… I want to take my time and really figure out what I want to do.”
Once Thuston gets back on campus, she will have plenty to keep her busy. She is actively involved with the student organization Caring for Columbia and as the director of projects, Thuston is in charge of determining the 70 sites that approximately 1,400 students serve at on their annual day of service.
Thuston is also an Evans Scholar and the executive vice president of service opportunities for the Missouri chapter of the scholarship program, which provides full coverage of both tuition and housing for golf caddies. Recipients are selected based on caddie record, grades and character. Thuston has served as an honor caddie at Algonquin Golf Club, in St. Louis, since 2008
Thuston also finds time to help Hertel as a teaching assistant in a college success seminar course for SNR transfer students.
“She connects well with the students and is kind of like big sister to a lot of students,” Hertel said. “She’s just one of those people who is kind and wants to leave the world better than she’s found it.”