It's 3,500 miles from John Glenn High School in New Concord, Ohio, to Seal Rescue Ireland.
But for Cambridge-native Molly Anne Chlovechok, the journey to get there was much longer than the distance would imply.
It took her to a farm in Norway.
To Morgantown, West Virginia and West Virginia University.
And most importantly, in her mind, to Nelsonville, Ohio and Hocking College.
Struggling through school
Growing up, Molly Anne was always around water, canoeing and fishing with her father, swimming in lakes with her mother and using a spaghetti strainer to catch tadpoles or whatever else swam by in creeks and ponds.
But school was hard for her.
"We didn't know it back then, but I have autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder, which made learning and working impossible at times," Molly Anne said.
She could always tell when teachers didn't like her. The first time she remembers someone saying they didn't believe she could excel academically was when a guidance counselor told her mother she wasn't "smart enough" to do well in school.
"I was humiliated," Molly Anne said. "My self-esteem was at rock-bottom, and I was sure anyone I told would agree. I begged my mom not to do anything about it, and I kept it to myself."
Another teacher told her in front of a classroom full of students that it was "obvious" Molly Anne wouldn't go to a good college, and wouldn't succeed in life.
After graduating high school in 2012, Molly Anne decided to go to college and major in theater, something she’d enjoyed growing up. Her OCD and autism still hadn't been diagnosed.
She struggled, didn't do well and returned home.
She bounced around working various retail jobs near Cambridge.
"One night after another soul-sucking cashier shift, I got online and told my friends I was desperate for any way out," she said.
One friend suggested World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a network of national organizations that connect people wanting to work on organic farms with farmers.
She jumped at the chance and chose the northernmost farm she could find, ending up in the small coastal town Tromsø, Norway.
"I lived with people from Slovakia, France, Austria and more," she said. "Some of them were only 18; some of them were in their 30s. They were all doing different things. One French boy was taking a semester off from his computer sciences course. A Czech couple was looking to start a new life far from home. I started to truly see how many paths to happiness there are."
She spent her free time exploring the nearby forests, beaches and mountains, surrounding herself with nature and wildlife.
"I was happier than I'd ever been," she recalled. "I knew I needed to find a way to stay like that."
Finding her place at Hocking College
She'd looked into studying zoology or biology during high school but didn't think she was smart enough. While in Norway, she began searching online for ways to work outdoors and found the natural resources programs at Hocking College.
"I couldn't believe something like it existed so close to my hometown," she said. "I applied and moved home."
Convinced that Hocking College was her "last shot" at going to school, Molly Anne was terrified on her first day of class.
She quickly found her fear was misplaced.
Her instructors were welcoming and made the students feel like they could succeed.
"Their enthusiasm was infectious," she said. "I knew I was going to fit in."
"I remember her apprehension the first few weeks of class, as she cautiously raised her hand to share an idea and add to the discussion." Scott Kreps, Molly Anne's instructor when she was an Ecotourism and Adventure Leadership major.
Kreps said it was evident early on that Molly Anne was a good student, full of "large-scope ideas," but with incredible attention to detail.
"For many instructors here at Hocking, Molly Anne brightened their days with her inquisitiveness and desire to continue applying what she was learning to the realities of the world," he said. "She's a great reminder that when we each have a student who is sitting down in our office — apprehensive about who knows what — that we provide a listening ear and some sharing of big ideas."
One of the major elements Molly Anne credits with her success at Hocking College was the free counseling she received from Hopewell Health. An on-campus counselor recognized what she was experiencing was more than just school-induced stress and referred her to a psychiatrist.
She began regular counseling sessions and started taking medication.
"I started to come out of what felt like a life-long fog," she said. "I had energy and focus I'd never had before. For the first time, my grades reflected my interest."
In class, she became the obvious answer when professors wanted to point out the best student.
"Somewhere along the path, I'd become a student my teachers expected to succeed," she said. "It was a new feeling."
"I found it surprising when she told me stories about teachers not having faith in her and her abilities," Sayre Flannagan, one of Molly Anne's Wildlife Resources Management instructors, said. "It was so clear to me that she was going to be a natural."
To Flannagan, it's Molly Anne's passion that allowed her to excel as a student and that she believes will lead her former pupil to great heights professionally.
"Molly Anne has that drive and passion you need for conservation work," Flannagan explained. "I think her time at Hocking helped her build her confidence, which was the one thing lacking a little for her to go out and move mountains, but once she realized that she was capable, I think there will be no stopping her."
After graduating from Hocking with a Wildlife Resources Management degree, Molly Anne transferred to West Virginia University.
She graduated in December 2019 with a Bachelor of Science in Wildlife and Fisheries Management.
She skipped graduation to catch a flight to Ireland to start her new job at Seal Rescue Ireland, the only seal rescue and rehabilitation center in the country.
She gives tours of the center to the public and leads beach clean-ups. Most days, she's outside with the seals. Feeding them, administering medication and helping with rescue calls for sick and injured seals at sea.
She’s been offered a permanent job at the rescue and returned to the U.S. to wait for her work visa to process in March as the coronavirus pandemic began to sweep across the country.
This summer she’s working at a soil lab at the University of Massachusetts, studying samples from salt marshes and kettle ponds and doing fieldwork on Cape Cod.
She credits Hocking College with giving her the skills to be both a scientist and an educator, but it also gave her so much more.
Molly Anne explained by referring to something she learned in her Interpretive Guide Techniques course at Hocking: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.
The pyramid of needs begins with a base of the most basic needs: physiological and safety needs. It then builds to love and belonging, followed by esteem. At the top is self-actualization.
Molly Anne remembers her instructor saying a person may live their entire life before experiencing a self-actualizing moment, and that's O.K.
But Molly Anne didn't have to wait that long.
She recalls her graduation from Hocking College:
"When they called my name at graduation, when I walked those steps and stood on that stage in front of my peers, something clicked.
"After a lifetime of feeling like a misfit, like someone stuck on the outside like something inside of me was broken, like I wasn't smart enough, good enough, strong enough, there I was being honored for every single thing I'd ever struggled with. When in the past, I was too loud or too outspoken, now I was 'passionate' and 'a leader.' I was healthy. I was happy. My family sat in the audience crying, and I was crying too.
"For my entire life, I'd been struggling to achieve my most basic needs.
"One by one, Hocking helped me fulfill them. My mental health, my self-esteem, my sense of belonging, everything fell into place.
"That moment I knew I'd done it.
"At Hocking College, I achieved self-actualization.
"I became the best person I can be."