“These lived experiences bring great value to so many different industries and professions,” she said. “They’re not a downfall, but they’re actually something else that you bring to your professional life.”
The stop at Harvey Gap was part of a guided tour by Brian Gray, a district wildlife manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The students had hiked through the burn scar of last year’s Grizzly Creek fire the previous week.
Outfitted in his tan officer shirt, blue jeans and sports sunglasses, Gray shared an entire syllabus worth of information about the ecosystem, quizzing the students about fish species and the surrounding vegetation.
The students — who would otherwise be lounging on summer break like many of their peers — responded with blank stars.
That didn’t mean they weren’t listening. Michelle Santillan, an incoming sophomore at Coal Ridge High School, said she has always been interested in science and wildlife. She wants to become a doctor and said participating in a program like this could be attractive to potential colleges.
The program also helped her look at natural disasters like wildfires in a different light, including one that burned near her home a few years earlier.
“It just made me think that fires happen all the time,” said Santillan, sporting a NASA T-shirt. “There’s always people that will be there to stop the fires and help us.”
Michelle Grindstaff, another Coal Ridge High School student, said she was inspired by hearing Soto talk about her work connecting Latinos with the outdoors. She said she would be interested in working in the tourism and recreation industry.
“It’s a career path I never thought to go into, but being able to talk with [Soto] and about her career kind of opened that up for me,” Grindstaff said.
Like many of his colleagues, Gray grew up fishing, camping and hiking with his family. He said Latinos and people of color might not be getting the same opportunities.
“Maybe they just didn’t grow up around it,” he said. “I think that’s probably a big reason why we don’t get more [of] other ethnic groups — that they just don’t have that experience.”
That disparity can be reversed by addressing the larger problems keeping many people and families of color from enjoying the outdoors, Soto said. Other Latinos agree: The latest State of the Rockies poll conducted by Colorado College showed 86 percent of Latinos supported increasing funding to improve access to the outdoors compared with 69 percent of white respondents.
“This is one of the reasons why we are constantly advocating for equitable access to the outdoors,” Soto said. “That is the first place where you really feel a sense of belonging in our public lands.”