Forestry Alumnus Jake French Lives Life as it Happens
Jake French worked as a forester exactly three weeks.
Now he talks regularly in front of large groups of natural resource agency employees, land managers and even brings his talents back to the University of Idaho, his alma mater. Injured just weeks into his career, the quadriplegic has a lot to say in preparing for a career in a natural resources.
“You need to put yourself out there. Get involved in clubs. Take internships, even if you don’t get paid.”
“I’m the answers at the back of the book,” he told a room full of College of Natural Resources students, most of them freshmen just beginning their college journey, in fall 2015.
French grew up in eastern Oregon and came to U of I in 2004 ready to begin his journey toward a natural resources career. But, he admits, the path he followed was a bumpy one, filled with bad decisions and nothing to fill his “life resume.”
“If you asked my professors about me, they probably wouldn’t have much good to say,” he said. He was the guy at the back of the class, probably talking, and waiting for the next opportunity to get drunk. Now he offers advice so other students can avoid his mistakes: “You need to put yourself out there. Get involved in clubs. Take internships, even if you don’t get paid.”
Living Life after College
French moved to St. Maries the summer after graduating with his bachelor’s in forestry, going to work in a temporary job in the forest industry. Several friends went with him.
“It was like college part two, only without homework and with money,” he said.
They worked hard and partied even harder. That fall he moved to Tillamook, Oregon, to begin a career with the Oregon Department of Forestry, but his lifestyle didn’t change. On Dec. 6, 2008, he and his friends had a typical drink-‘til-you-drop night. While stopped at a gas station, he saw a childhood friend he hadn’t seen in years stagger out of the station.
“It was like college part two, only without homework and with money,”
Happy to see his friend, French jumped out of the car to catch up. After just a minute of reminiscing, the friend put French in a full nelson headlock, throwing both drunken men off balance. French landed on his face, breaking his neck and ending his budding career. The friend left, never to be heard from again.
French had no feeling in his legs. Doctors told him he would never use his arms and possibly, after a final surgery, never breathe on his own. Months later, he defied the odds. He developed some use of his arms and was breathing strongly between each well-placed joke about his condition.
“Humor really got my family and me through,” he said.
Living Life Again
Though French took training to stay in the natural resource industry, the nerve damage proved to cause too much pain in the legs he couldn’t otherwise feel.
“So I retrained — as a public speaker. It is so opposite of anything I have ever done,” he said.
Now a member of the National Speakers Association — where he holds a board position — he is learning from mentors who are helping him find his message and deliver it in the way French intends — with humor and no pity. He has also written an eBook, “Life Happens, Live It!”
“So I retrained — as a public speaker. It is so opposite of anything I have ever done,”
French started his speaking career in the high school he graduated from. He spoke to high school students from quite a while before branching out and growing his message to apply to natural resource professionals.
“These are my people,” he said. “I can relate to them.”
As he talked to CNR’s students during a 2015 visit to U of I, his messages were clear:
- Make good choices with alcohol. If you can roll the dice, are you willing to pay the price?
- Cut out negativity. Making “can do” an initial reaction increases your value.
- Put yourself out there. Don’t just tell why you love natural resources, show it.
Published in the Winter 2015-16 “Celebrating Natural Resources”
Article by Jodi Walker, University Communications and Marketing