National Park Ranger | Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park
SCA 1993 Golden Gate NRA
SCA 1995 North Cascades
SCA 1996 Eisenhower National Historic Site
SCA 1997 Golden Gate National Recreation Area
The Student Conservation Association changed my life one summer while working in a national park. So how was my life changed?
To answer this question, I need to explain my other life. I was born in a small mountainous town in civil war torn El Salvador. I emigrated to the inner city of Los Angeles at the age of 10. This drastic move had life-changing consequences, but it was not a choice I made, it was simply one I lived through.
For the next decade, I grew up in the graffiti-filled streets of South Central, where even nice guys had to front a cut-throat persona to get through the day without being beaten. You either rose to the fighting or you died. I had my own run-ins with the authorities. I was a quarrelsome Latino kid trying to justify his low-income existence and cover his own helplessness with anger.
A friend invited me to a Student Conservation Association meeting (it reached out to inner city kids to spread conservation awareness and to instill a sense of ownership toward national parks). In his words, “Yo, free pizza!” I would like to say that I attended because I believed in the mission, or that I wanted my life changed for the better, but the reality was that I went because they had food. Several pizza meetings later, I decided to spend the summer working on a trail crew at Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
I made this decision for several reasons, mainly I wanted to get away from work as a gardener. I had been working with my father since I was 12 years old, every Saturday and every school break. I also felt slightly guilty for all the pizza I had consumed on the nonprofit’s dime.
So, what was the hardest thing for an inner city youth who was used to drive-by shootings and turf-divided school zones? It was not the long hours of cutting brush, or the full-body poison oak outbreak. For me, the hardest things were the pristine silence of nature, deafening to ears accustomed to noise, and the blinding pitch-black nights with the bizarre but mesmerizing highway of stars. Facing these unknowns gave me a new way to interpret the world and my place in it. My life and world no longer needed to be defined by confusing anger. I could see new avenues.
After that summer, I was inspired! I realized I should and could go to a university. I attended the University of California at Santa Cruz and worked with the National Park Service and SCA during summer breaks. I became the ﬁrst in my entire Salvadorian community to graduate from a university. I later worked for SCA in their D.C office and attended graduate school to study history. I leveraged my SCA and NPS experiences to become a ranger at three national parks; including Yosemite where I did community outreach to nearby immigrant neighborhoods. Since then, I’ve gone on to teach history, Spanish and English in South Korea, Turkey and Vietnam. But no matter the subject I teach, I always make sure to lead by example and instruct on proper conservation methods of our shared natural resources.
I am greatly indebted to both The Student Conservation Association and the National Parks Service for instilling in me a global stewardship of our planet. Moreover, they equip me with the life skills and mental agility required for an ever increasingly demanding world. With this perspective in mind, I realize now that the choices I made long ago have come to deﬁne my life and current destination. The turning point was not a speciﬁc life-shattering event, but rather a cumulative experience in the outdoors. It was a summer spent with a youth organization committed to challenging an inner city youth to see the natural world as his to protect; and in so doing, finding his very own place within it.