Growing up in Chicago, Jesse Okwu’s closest connection to nature was watching environmental documentaries on public television. So when he came to Washington for an eight-week summer program on conservation issues, and visited the state’s national parks and desert landscapes, it was his first real encounter with the wilderness.
By the end of the program, the sophomore at Knox College in Illinois was loving the outdoor field trips. Now, he’s thinking about how conservation work could become part of his career path in economics.
Okwu, who is African American, is among 26 students from a variety of backgrounds who took part in a program at the University of Washington this summer aimed at broadening the diversity of students who choose careers in conservation and ecology.
The concern: More than 80 percent of people in conservation jobs — like the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and private groups such as the Nature Conservancy — are white, and come from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.
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Students who go into conservation jobs often have a passion for nature and a mind for science, said Sean Watts, director of the summer program called Conservation Scholars. But they may lack people skills or the flexibility to consider an issue from different policy and social perspectives.
And because few conservation workers come from diverse backgrounds, they may approach a problem with a limited understanding of how different communities are affected by the potential solutions, he said.
The program drew nearly 400 applicants, and Watts said the students were carefully chosen from a range of ethnic and racial backgrounds — white, black, Asian-American, Native American, Latino. Five were white; nine were multiracial. Some had parents who never graduated from high school, and others came from families where both parents went to graduate school.
And while most of them were planning to major in environmental sciences, the group also included students majoring in film studies, mechanical engineering, applied mathematics, business and economics.
“They are fantastic, thoughtful folks, and mature beyond their years — and I do think, wherever they go, they’re going to transform the way we think about conservation issues,” Watts said.
During the program, the students crisscrossed Washington, from the slopes of Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens to the dry grasslands of the Moses Coulee in Eastern Washington. They visited the Elwha dam-removal project, saw the Duwamish River and the Pacific coastline, and talked with members of the Duwamish, Quinault and Yakama tribes about the cultural underpinnings of their views of the environment.
Getting more students from all backgrounds interested in conservation at the start of their college studies could affect the trajectory of their careers, Watts said.
The students seemed to agree.
“Business has been one of the biggest polluters of the environment; I really want to change that,” said Eric Katz, a business major at the University of Michigan. Katz is white.
Steven Harris, a Syracuse University student majoring in earth sciences and anthropology, knows there aren’t many black men like him in the conservation movement, but he’s undeterred. “It inspires me,” he said.
The students noted that climate change is expected to have some of its most devastating effects on the poorest regions of the planet.
“Climate change is going to be global, and it’s important to take diverse viewpoints into account,” said Jordan Morgan, a white student from Bemidji State University in Minnesota. “The conservation field has not been very diversified — most of the people working in it look like me.”
The Conservation Scholars program is being funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Two other schools, Northern Arizona University and the University of Florida, also received Duke foundation money to run programs this summer.
The program was run by the UW’s College of the Environment, the newest of the university’s 16 colleges and schools. College Dean Lisa Graumlich said the program has another benefit: It allows freshmen and sophomores to get a hands-on feel for the exciting part of conservation work early in their college careers, a time when they’re usually working on the difficult science prerequisites their majors require.
If it sounds like a feel-good summer program, Watts is quick to point out that Conservation Scholars was designed to challenge the students’ assumptions, and their stereotypes about the people who work in the field.
For example, the students visited an organic apple farm, and met an older white farmer who employed migrant workers to pick his fruit. The farmer was reticent to talk about his relationship with his workers, and initially the students interpreted his reluctance to mean he had something to hide.
But Watts knew that the farmer had a history of doing right by his workers. “He treats his farmworkers really well, contributes to their education programs, gives them gas money,” Watts said. When they learned this, the students “were having this moment when they had to completely flip their assessment of him,” Watts said.
Watts said challenging the way students think about the world means “it was tense at times — you don’t get to those conversations without a little tension,” he said.
This same group of students will return to the UW for two more summers, in 2015 and 2016, even as a new cohort will join the program next year.