SCHUYLKILL HAVEN, Pa. — Penn State graduate Charles “Chip” Schuster has combined his love for the outdoors and his passion for law enforcement into a well-suited position as a wildlife conservation officer with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Schuster was born into a family of educators and initially set out to earn a degree in elementary education. After a few semesters of study, he realized he wanted something different than a career in the classroom. With a keen interest in news and events involving the criminal justice system, Schuster decided to change both his major and his school. Returning to his native Schuylkill County, he enrolled in the criminal justice bachelor’s degree program at Penn State Schuylkill.
After graduating from Penn State Schuylkill in 2017, Schuster received a job offer from the Pennsylvania Game Commission. By 2018, he was enrolled in the Ross Lefler School of Conservation in Harrisburg — the game commission's academy that has been training game wardens since 1932. Along with his fellow cadets, Schuster completed a rigorous and structured 50-week program that combines classroom learning and hands-on field training.
In 2019, Schuster graduated and received his first assignment to a district in Fayette County located in southwestern Pennsylvania. In January 2020, he accepted a transfer to district 6-54-2, returning him to Schuylkill County.
While the work is varied and rewarding, the life of a wildlife conservation officer has many challenges. Calls can come in at any hour of the day (or night), and work is conducted under all weather conditions. Additionally, the job can be dangerous. Officers typically work alone, and many calls involve individuals with firearms. Still, Schuster says he finds a lot of satisfaction in what he does.
We spoke with Schuster recently about his academic and career path and asked him about his work as a wildlife conservation officer.
Q: What influenced your decision to attend Penn State Schuylkill? Why criminal justice?
Schuster: Penn State Schuylkill allowed me to obtain an education while still being able to work in the evening to earn some extra money. I had always been interested in the criminal justice system, and Schuylkill offered the program.
Q: Who were your mentors and who influenced your academic and/or career path?
Schuster: Hakan Can [professor, criminal justice], played a big part in helping me succeed in my academic career. He was always available with help and advice — whether it was something education-related or having to do with career and workplace advice. Ronald Kelly [assistant teaching professor and program coordinator, criminal justice] was also critical to my positive experience at Penn State Schuylkill, and his classes were always fun and engaging.
Q: How did your academic background help prepare you for a career with the game commission?
Schuster: The criminal justice classes I took while attending Penn State Schuylkill really helped when we got to the courtroom procedures section of the training and how things work within the criminal justice system. Looking back, I wish that I had taken some biology or science-related courses. I did not have college-level science coursework, but it would have been enormously helpful during training at the academy.
Q: What is the ranking system in the Pennsylvania Game Commission, and what opportunities for advancement are there?
Schuster: Currently, I am a district state game warden serving district 6-54-2. We are not assigned a rank, but we do have promotional opportunities. There are several ways to be promoted, either to higher level supervisory and managerial roles or land manager positions that oversee wildlife habitat management. There are also opportunities to serve as special investigators or in K-9/special investigator positions.
Q: What are some examples of continuing education in the game commission?
Schuster: Opportunities for continuing or advanced training are vast. I have taken everything from firearms-based courses to footprint-tracking courses. The game commission provides a limitless amount of training if one wants to improve their skills and job performance.
Q: What does a regular day look like in the life of a game warden?
Schuster: Being a game warden is a unique job, and I am not sure that any two conservation officers do it the same way. A typical day begins by signing into the Computer Automated Dispatch, which is where I receive my calls. I will review the day's calls and prioritize them into what needs to be attended to immediately. I also try to respond to any important emails. Once I jump in the truck, I will answer my calls until they are completed, or as new calls come in. Once all my calls are completed, I typically patrol the local state game lands or wrap up any other business — training, paperwork — until I am done for the day.
Q: What are some of the most challenging calls that you answer?
Schuster: I can honestly say that no two calls are ever the same. First, I try to be as open minded as possible when I receive a call, and not make any immediate assumptions. Over the years, I have found that some calls that I thought would be quick and easy to handle ended in a weeks-long investigation. On the other hand, I have gotten calls I thought would be lengthy investigations that were quickly resolved.
Q: What advice would you give to students who might also be interested in working for the game commission?
Schuster: I would recommend that they try their absolute best in everything that they do and always give their full effort. Although some academic training in biology or criminal justice can come in handy, I think a good attitude and a willingness to learn are two critical traits for success at the academy. I would have to say that applies in most situations though — with the right attitude and willingness to learn, you can do almost anything that you set your mind to.
For more information about alumni activities at Penn State Schuylkill, contact Abigayle Kaiser, alumni relations and stewardship office, or visit schuylkill.psu.edu/alumni.