Have you ever taken a leap of faith that changed your life forever? I did, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made. My story starts back in 2010, sitting in the living room with my dad watching cute videos of giant pandas on YouTube. A website caught my eye that read www.pandahome.com. I thought it was a unique name for a website and since I had never seen it before, I decided to see what it was all about. That one click of the mouse changed my life forever.
“I’m going to China to work with pandas!” I screamed while jumping up and down.
I had stumbled upon a global contest to fly to China and work with pandas at the world’s largest home to captive pandas, and it was one week before the deadline! I nearly broke my computer as I leapt to my feet. “I’m going to China to work with pandas!” I screamed while jumping up and down. “They’re having a contest for Panda Ambassadors and I have one week to enter!”
It was such an exciting time for me. Every week I crushed the competition, getting people to vote for me at work, in class, on the streets, on social networking sites…I was going to make it! Three weeks later, I was on a plane to Chengdu, China to compete against eleven other Panda Ambassador hopefuls. I had beaten out 60,000 other applicants. It was my first time leaving North America. I didn’t even have a passport prior to entering the contest, but I knew this was my destiny.
The first week was a whirlwind of new people, exciting classes, tours of Chengdu, and the best part of all: pandas, pandas, pandas! I had the opportunity to feed pandas bamboo, make panda cakes and deliver them to panda enclosures, and even go into their cages and clean their resting places. I was becoming a real-life panda keeper and a spokesperson for the animal that I have loved since I was a little girl.
Before I knew it, it was competition day. I had been unable to sleep a wink the night before. I’d stayed up all night studying and practicing my performance. Losing was not an option. I had to know panda trivia, identify different types of bamboo, present a gift to the city of Chengdu, and give a speech about a star panda. As I sat with my fingers in my ears repeating my speech to myself, another competitor came over, put his hand on my back, and whispered in my ear, “You got this Ashley. You are in. Just go up there and be confident and you’ve won”.
As I look back on my first week in Chengdu, I thought I was happy then. I told myself that even if I didn’t win, I was happy just to be in China and see the pandas I love so much. I had no idea the amount of joy that would come to me from winning the title of Pambassador. I got to work with four panda cubs every day for a month. I worked so closely with them, I began to see differences in their personalities. I could predict moves they would make and even felt that I could relate to them on an individual level. I was becoming a panda expert. I was their friend, their protector. I traveled to see firsthand the environment where giant pandas lived in the wild. I trekked through bamboo forests and set up infrared cameras to observe pandas in their natural habitat.
The last few days I spent in China were bittersweet. I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to stay there forever. I felt at home, my life had meaning, and I was making a difference in the world. Since my time in Chengdu, I’ve traveled to Europe and visited other Chengdu pandas, but nothing will ever compare to the bond I formed with those four panda cubs I worked with day-in and day-out.
The quest for the next Pambassadors has begun this month.
The quest for the next Pambassadors has begun this month, and the opportunity is even better the second time around. Not only will the 2012 Pambassadors get to work and interact with pandas like I did, but they’ll also travel the world for six months promoting panda awareness, visiting panda zoos, and helping to facilitate the release of a captive panda into the wild. I’m honored to be a Pambassador and I hope to pass the title onto another person as passionate about protecting this beautiful creature as I am.
If you would like to be the next Pambassador, all you have to do is go to www.ChengduPambassador.com and create a quick profile. Get your friends and family to vote for you by giving you a “hug” and you’re on your way to becoming the next Pambassador. Take it from me. I was in my final semester of school, working my way through college, maintaining my family, and I put it all on hold to chase my dream. If I can do it, so can you. Why not do something great today?
(The Chengdu Pambassador contest ended Monday morning, October 1st. But there’s always next year…)
Ashley Robertson is a photographer living in Orlando, Florida with her rescue dog, Panda. She has loved pandas and the outdoors since childhood. In 2010, her love of pandas, photography, and environmental conservation sent her to China to become a Panda Ambassador. To learn more about Ashley, visit www.AshRoPhoto.com.