Marine Discovery Center volunteer Carla Collins, a Ph.D., spent her career working in educational research. Now retired, you can find Carla greeting guests at MDC’s Welcome Desk on the weekends or volunteering for other needs at the center.

She grew up in rural Pennsylvania, moved to New York City, Chicago and later to California for work before finally settling in Edgewater, Fla., where she now lives on the Indian River Lagoon.

Read more about Carla in MDC’s December 2021 Volunteer Spotlight interview with staff writer Lisa D. Mickey:

Carla Collins

Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I was born in a very small town, in Newport, Pa. It’s in central Pennsylvania about 26 miles northwest of Harrisburg in cow country. I grew up on a farm. It was a small 10-acre truck farm where we grew corn, strawberries, beans, potatoes and vegetables.

Q: Were there a lot of kids to help on the farm?
A: There were only three of us. I lived with my grandparents a lot because both of my parents were nurses with strange work hours. We lived in a very secluded community. One uncle lived on the hill above us, one aunt lived below us, and the other relatives all lived within 10 miles. I was definitely a country girl. I was 18 before we moved into town, and even then, there were only 1,800 people there.

Q: Did college take you out of town?
A: I went to Bloomsburg University, but dropped out for about five years and moved to New York City – mainly to see what it was like. I grew up in such a small place there wasn’t even a movie theater where I lived. I went to New York once and was totally taken by it, so I moved there by myself when I was 20. Hey! I made a lot of mistakes! [Laughter]

Q: Did you just go to New York, find an apartment and start your life there?
A: I had met a couple of people and stayed with them initially, and then I got my own apartment. I worked for American Express, calling people and asking them for their money or to verify what they had spent. After that, I worked for a chiropractor and then I decided to go back to school to finish my undergraduate degree.

Q: Where did you earn your college degree?
A: I enrolled at Hunter College in the city. I ended up staying in the city for 25 years. I lived on the lower East Side in the beginning, and moved up to 57th and 10th Avenue. In my last semester at Hunter, I took an abnormal psychology class. My professor worked on a research project and requested that students participate, giving us extra credit for the class. I did and I thought it was totally fascinating. So, I started volunteering there, entering data. That led to graduate school and I ended up getting my doctorate degree in social personality psychology.

Q: What is that?
A: It was mainly research in psychology. I studied stress, behavior and Type A behavior, which is a personality trait where people are very speed-oriented. They have certain speech characteristics versus the Type B personality, which is more laid back and slower. We did research with firefighters, police officers and other professionals. I was a research psychologist in a university setting in experimental psychology. I worked in the graduate center of City University in New York.

Q: Where did you go from there?
A: While I was putting myself through graduate school, I had two daughters and got divorced from my husband in 1980. I was never home. I started working for the New York City Board of Education and I ended up staying in education. Research didn’t offer too many jobs and it took me 11 years to graduate because I was working, raising kids, taking classes and juggling priorities.

Q: Did your daughters grow up in New York City with you?
A: Yes! They loved the city.

Q: How did you make the transition from a vegetable farm to living in one of the world’s largest cities?
A: It was quite an adjustment, but it was something I wanted to do. It was very unnerving initially and I felt like everyone was speaking a foreign language, but then again, they couldn’t understand my Pennsylvania accent.

Q: What did you learn about yourself?
A: I learned I could be on my own. After I had my kids, I started standing up for myself and for others. Before that, I think I had low self-esteem. Maybe that’s because I was taller than everybody else and people made fun of me in school. By the time I was in seventh grade, I was 5-foot-7. I grew to 5-foot-9, but often, the boys were shorter.

Q: What were you doing in your education job?
A: I taught for about five years, then I started working for the city’s board of education as a data analyst. I ran statistical programs and reported testing scores, evaluated schools and worked for different departments, including early childhood, where I conducted research. I also taught at both a two-year and four-year college, each for five years. I taught intro to psychology, developmental psychology, research methods and adult psychology.

Q: What came after living and working in New York City?
A: I left the city in 1995 because I was still working at the board of education, I had earned my doctorate degree, and they didn’t want to give me an increase in pay. My kids were both going to college at the time, so I applied for a job in Chicago with the American Education Research Association. I got the job as an assessment specialist with Chicago Public Schools, so I moved to Chicago, where I lived from 1995-1997. The state had decided that every school needed to create their own assessment system. Whatever a school felt they needed or what was their weakest area, I would go there with background research and present them with some options.

Q: Where did you go from Chicago?
A: While working in New York City, one of my jobs was working in the board of education’s assessment department as the liaison between New York City and California. While I was in Chicago, they were putting in a proposal to run the New York State Testing Program and they asked me if I would be the program manager for it if they got the bid. They did, so after two and half years in Chicago, I got the job with McGraw Hill in Monterey, Calif., where I worked as program manager for New York State while living in California. I was there for 13 years. Part of McGraw Hill’s education division is still out there. I flew back and forth from California to the New York office, setting up training programs to teach people the new testing system. We also set up meetings for all of the teachers throughout the state.

Q: Hopefully, you visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium while you were out there.
A: Oh yes, I volunteered there at the aquarium and the museum. I also did a lot of hiking. It was so gorgeous. I still have a house there.

Q: Did you move from California to Florida?
A: No, I returned to Pennsylvania and went to State College for a couple of years because I had friends there and my girls were in New Jersey. I got a job with Yonkers Public Schools in New York as their director of assessment and I retired there in 2019. Three days after retiring in Yonkers, I moved to Edgewater. My brother is here and I’ve been coming to this area for years with my family.

Q: How was the transition of working many hours each week to retirement?
A: Practically, all I did was work my whole life. I would get up, go to work for 10 hours, go home, take care of the kids and go back to work. That’s why I volunteer — to keep myself busy! I volunteer at MDC and I’d like to do some volunteer work at The Hub. When I was in Chicago, I volunteered at an art museum. In New York, I lived only a few blocks from Central Park, so during the week, my friend baby-sat my kids, and on the weekends, I would baby-sit her kids. I would have six kids with me every weekend.

Q: How and when did you become involved at MDC?
A: About two years ago, after I had finally gotten moved into my new home here, I needed to find something to do. Having volunteered at an aquarium and at an art museum, this just seemed like a good place for me to volunteer. I ran into another volunteer at MDC who was involved with the New Smyrna Beach Dance Club, so I went for free dance lessons. Now, I mostly work at the Welcome Desk on Saturdays, but I will fill in on other days, if needed. This year, I worked with the Plein Air Paint Out, helping check in art from the artists. I’ve also worked a little bit with MDC’s oyster program.

Q: What do you enjoy most about volunteering at MDC?
A: I like volunteering because sometimes I miss work, but there are a lot of nice people here. You get to meet people coming into the center and you get to know the animals. You get a little bit of everything and you feel like you’re a part of something. It’s easy to become very isolated if you’re not involved. I am also president of the garden club at Hacienda del Rio [a retirement community in Edgewater, Fla.].

Carla (second from L) with Welcome Center staff and volunteers in 2019

​Q: Why do you want to volunteer?
A: I get nice satisfaction out of it. I feel like I’ve done something whenever I come to MDC to volunteer. I like to help people who visit the center have fun and I like to show the kids around.

Q: Has there been a highlight for you here?
A: I enjoy the days when we have 40-50 people coming in here and asking questions about the tanks and boat tours. Also, I enjoy going out on the boat and listening to our naturalists talk about everything.

Q: What kind of hobbies do you have?
A: I’ve always liked dancing and we had fire hall dances growing up in Pennsylvania. The firemen held dances on Saturday nights, which was our only entertainment in the 1960s and ‘70s. These days, I’m mostly line dancing, but I’m learning to waltz. I can do the salsa, mambo, cha-cha and the West Coast Swing. I also enjoy knitting. I got into it about five or six years ago. I’m taking a cruise in Europe that has knitting classes and offers tours to little towns where you can talk to shopkeepers. I’m going to knit my way down the Rhine.

Q: Does MDC and the Monterey Bay Aquarium have anything in common?
A: The love for nature and the camaraderie. Both of those things were evident when I first walked into each place. We’re small, but mighty here at MDC.

Q: What changes or improvements have impressed you since coming to MDC?
A: I was anticipating some changes, such as when Auburn University got involved here. I was hoping something like that would happen. I think there should be more activities for kids, especially in the “tween” age group.

Q: What do you appreciate the most about being a part of MDC’s mission to conserve and protect the Indian River Lagoon?
A: I live on the lagoon. I know from all the work that is done at MDC, the lagoon is being kept cleaner. There are some challenges, but it seems that we’re doing what we can do. I feel like I’m a part of that mission. In my former career, I didn’t feel like I had much of an impact on anything, but here, it feels like if we work together, we have a tremendous chance of keeping the lagoon lively and clean. I enjoy talking to our guests and I’m learning some of the things they’re learning at the same time they are. I also love the Florida Master Naturalist Program (FMNP) classes here at MDC. I have taken two classes, so far.

Q. What did you learn from taking the FMNP classes?
A: I knew nothing about water, rivers and oceans, and I learned about frogs, lizards and all kinds of things. You think you’re so educated, but then you learn there’s a whole other world out there. Those classes challenged me and I’m looking forward to taking more. Plus, I keep learning every day that I’m at MDC.