Firefighter, novelist, and graduate student Shawna Legarza has worked for the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management for 23 years, and currently serves as a Fire Management Officer for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service. “We are stewards of the land,” she explains. “We manage the land for the public, and are always looking at how to care for it better. This includes deciding when to allow a fire to burn and when to suppress it immediately.” Shawna’s career also includes working on all-hazard assignments such as Hurricane Rita, and working with the Alaska Type 1 Incident Management Team at the World Trade Center Recovery site, where she met her husband.
When she first joined the Forest Service, Shawna was earning her Bachelor of Science in Exercise Physiology and Teaching from University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). She went on to earn a second Bachelor of Science in Wildland and Fire Management from Boise State University, and a Master of Science in Kinesiology from UNLV. Today, Shawna is pursuing her Doctor of Psychology, Organizational Leadership specialization online at University of the Rockies.
The story of how Shawna came to University of the Rockies unfortunately begins with tragedy. “My husband committed suicide in January 2008. The books I read warned of survivors who turned to alcohol or drugs, and I refused to be that person. I needed something to keep myself focused and goal-oriented.”
Shawna’s solution was to start writing. What began as a therapeutic tool for dealing with loss became No Grass, published in June 2009. The story has so much impact that hundreds of copies were sold within a few short weeks, and the book claimed first place in the Hollywood Book Festival for best memoir in July 2009. No Grass is available on Amazon.com, and continues to inspire firefighters and their families who have lost loved ones.
Through the process of writing the book, Shawna gained an interest in psychology, which ultimately led her to University of the Rockies. Shawna has now completed her coursework, and is finishing up her dissertation and nearing her graduation day.
Consistent with her accomplishments, Shawna’s practicum* work has positively impacted her community, and is earning recognition on a national level. She explains how she was in Washington, D.C. in 2009 when the executive order came from the President to employ more veterans in the workforce; at the time she was also preparing to attend an in-residence course at University of the Rockies. “At the in-residence, Dr. Steve Kirkpatrick told us to find a program and make it better. I thought of that executive order, and then I thought about my own experiences at the World Trade Center.” Shawna decided her practicum would focus on cultural transformation project focused on helping military men and women transition to the civilian workforce.
The result was the Southwestern Conservation Corporation Veteran Wildland Fire and Leadership Development Program, piloted in Durango, Colorado. “The program targets those veterans who don’t get federal seasonal jobs. They can come to this program and earn the necessary qualifications to be competitive next year.” The pilot proved the program’s value beyond question - “all of the people who went into the program last year got fire jobs this year.”
Shawna’s work was so effective that it caught the USDA’s attention. In February 2011 she was selected as the USDA employee spotlight in the My USDA e-news magazine. The spotlight states, “Shawna Legarza’s innovative idea is helping veterans, and it’s helping the entire Department by bringing on more qualified employees.” The USDA is currently working to allow interested agencies to offer Shawna’s program in other areas of the country.
Shawna’s work as a firefighter, her contributions as a novelist, and her innovations as a graduate psychology student have already had a profound impact, one which is certain to only deepen as a University of the Rockies alumnae.
*Practicum coursework is no longer offered in the School of Organizational Leadership at University of the Rockies.