SCA Alum Jay Chu in Daily Breeze
Growing up in suburban Los Angeles, the sun was almost always out, and beaches, forests, mountains, hiking trails and lakes were never too far away.
Somehow though, this outdoor paradise was lost on me and my Asian Americans friends. When I wasn’t in school, I was over-studying in my room, attending Japanese school on Saturdays, playing some sort of instrument, or taking extra math classes.
Unknowingly, my friends and I were at the forefront of an issue that has stumped politicians, health advocates and parents for some time: How to get kids outside.
Fast forward to today. I’ve climbed mountains in Oregon, hiked parts of the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails, and met some of the most inspiring people during these adventures. The outdoors gave me peace, challenge, adventure — everything that my indoor lifestyle didn’t offer.
But I’ve wondered what made me make that switch from indoor to outdoor living.
Many minority parents don’t have the time, money, or experience to take their children beyond the city limits, and this held true for me and many of my Asian, Latino and black friends. A survey by the National Park Service (NPS) found that around 80 percent of national park visitors are white, as are more than 80 percent of NPS employees.
It was lucky that after my family visited Yosemite National Park when I was around 14, I found that the outdoors was the place to be for all people, no matter their race.
In high school I wanted to become actively involved in conservation. An internship with the Student Conservation Association (SCA), a national volunteer organization, gave me that opportunity.
During the three months I spent in Klamath Falls, Ore., I worked long days in the national forests, backpacking all over southern Oregon, volunteering at local farmers markets and making lifelong friends. When September came along, my only thoughts were “I’ve got to do this again” and “Why aren’t more people doing this?”
Friends say I’m a missionary for the outdoors, and for good reason: My stories seem to always start with “that time when we were in the woods …”
Spending a weekend camping in the mountains may sound daunting, but the lessons learned and the friendships made outdoors are invaluable.
Recently, I took part in NPS Academy, a joint project with SCA and the National Park Service. The goal of the Academy is to train young peopleaof color for careers in conservation and increase NPS’ workforce diversity. I
t’s a worthy ambition: After meeting African American and Latino conservation leaders at the academy I noticed how they brought different perspectives to their work. I felt the mix of viewpoints can only make the park system better.
This summer, I will be serving at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, and I hope to make conservation my life’s work.
Reflecting on my journey, I remember my first night in Klamath Falls. The supervisor took all the interns out in a field and we talked about our lives, goals and expectations for the summer. During our discussion, a little brown bat began flying around us and landed on my boss’s head. I couldn’t believe things like that actually happened in real life.
It’s moments like those I hope to preserve, but to accomplish that, we need people of all ages, races and backgrounds to understand — and enjoy — the experiences found at places like national parks.
Take that first step. You won’t regret it.
Rancho Palos Verdes native Jay Chu recently completed his freshman year in college.