How the NPS Academy Changed One Person’s Life

By Nancy Fernandez

Jessica Zamudio and I first met in 2015 when we were both selected to participate in a special internship program run by the Student Conservation Association that introduced undergraduate and graduate students to career opportunities in the National Park Service. For students, it can offer the experience of working in some of the jewels of the park system – and for some, like Jessica, it may even be their first time camping or spending much time in nature.

Recently, I wanted to see how that SCA experience had affected her life. I knew that Jessica has gone on to a career encouraging Latino engagement with the outdoors. I traveled to her hometown in Florida and we sat down to discuss how the SCA has impacted her life. What follows is an edited transcript of our discussion.

Nancy: Let’s start with what led you to the SCA. What made you apply? 

Jessica: At that time, I was in college and had never really traveled anywhere. But I had started exploring the nature preserves around the area of Florida I lived in. I had a strong connection to those experiences hiking those trails, and I developed a strong desire to connect on a deeper level to nature. So I just googled “how to volunteer” and “how to travel” and the SCA came up.

Nancy: Where did you serve?

Jessica: My internship was at Yosemite National Park, which is so fantastic. I feel so blessed to have had that as my first opportunity. My position was in social media and video production so over the summer I spent a lot of my time traveling throughout the park, which is massive, and taking photos and documenting the youth stewardship programs in the park, working with a Sony video production partnership with the park. What an experience! It’s an incredible place, with a powerful history and just such a visually dramatic landscape. The first place I’ve been camping in my life was on the eastern side of the Sierras close to Mono Lake. We camped at some hot springs nearby, which I think technically we weren’t supposed to, but we got there in the middle of the night. It was completely dark out and we just picked a spot. We woke up in the morning to a gorgeous sunrise and mountains surrounding us, and steam coming off some natural hot springs. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced.

Another key experience for me there was working with a partner program called Parks in Focus. It is an organization that works to connect inner city youth to the outdoors by coming out to a park and learning how to use digital cameras to connect the youth to nature through photography. Hearing those kids’ stories and connecting with them and really like feeling like I was just an older version of them was such a powerful moment for me. Seeing how that can make an impact inspired me to want to continue that work back home in Florida where I just did not see a lot of organizations doing that kind of work.

Nancy: I can see how passionate you really are about conservation, diversity and outreach. Tell us how you have taken that energy and brought it back home here to Florida.

Jessica: I am the outings leader for Florida for Latino Outdoors, which is a nonprofit organization based out of California with leaders around the country. We work to connect the Latino community to the outdoors by providing nature-based experiences, including outings, hikes, and educational opportunities. I am working on building that community in Florida. I’ve organized a few hikes and our first outing was in November of 2018, so it’s still in its nebulous stage here in Florida.

Nancy: Looking back, how did the SCA experience help you reach the level you’re at?

Jessica: I would say that being exposed to people that were working at the level in programs with incredible values that work to connect under-served, under-represented communities and individuals to these green spaces was so far from the world that I grew up in — I just had never seen that before. Seeing that there was a possibility and that there are people and organizations like that continues to fuel me today when I’m not always surrounded by those kinds of organizations and the values they represent. When I don’t have that around me, I reach back to those memories with the SCA to find that motivation to continue this kind of work here in Florida. 

Nancy: Is there any advice that you would give to anyone just starting out and is thinking that they might be interested in conservation? Is there something that maybe you would tell your former self?

Jessica: I would say don’t be afraid. You’re going to go into unfamiliar situations and be around people that you don’t necessarily relate to. But there are a lot of really good people in the conservation community that don’t need to have the same background that you did to still respect and appreciate and want to see you win. And just relax and go with the flow of the experience. All those little impromptu hikes and swims in the river? Just take them. Go. Those are the magic moments that build those bonds and that community.

There’s a plethora of volunteer opportunities with the parks and partner organizations so if you’re looking to further your career in that field, check them out. They’re always more than happy to welcome volunteers and it’s a great way to get that experience and that knowledge that you might be seeking.

Nancy: For people interested in Latino Outdoors, where can they find more information?

Jessica: They can go to Latino Outdoors website and they can always contact me at my email, [email protected].

Nancy: Jessica, thank you so much for your time.

Jessica: Thank you Nancy, it was a pleasure as always.