Stories from the Field

2017 Yosemite Alcoa Scholars: A Perspective & Reflection

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For those of you who have been following the blog as we have been documenting the journey of our Alcoa Scholars, you know by now how they backpacked, explored, conducted scientific experiments, and learned more about each other’s cultures in Yosemite National Park.

Those are all the tangible results of the Alcoa Scholars Program, which ended on Saturday.

Yet there were so many things, subtle things, that I saw in each of the Scholars as they engaged with nature and each other over the course of the program. 

As a part of the NatureBridge communications team, I had the privilege of going to Yosemite with the NatureBridge communications manager from our San Francisco office in order to write up these blogs, post on social media and capture video footage of the program (which will be released at the end of the year). When I arrived, I really did not know what to expect. I anticipated the stereotypical rowdy high schooler who I embodied years ago. I wondered if bullying would be an issue as well.

I couldn’t have been more off base. #

As soon as I arrived, the energy of the entire class of Scholars was that of excitement, anticipation, humility, and most importantly, inclusivity. They made the effort to include each other in all activities and get to know one another. One big barrier for many students was their native tongue. Many felt that they didn’t speak English well enough to interact with others. Native English speakers noticed this, and they made the effort to speak slowly and clearly without making their peers feel uncomfortable. Eventually, they were learning about each other’s languages, different pronunciations and of course, common slang terms. Australians and Americans particularly got a kick out of sharing terminology that the other culture found to be hilarious in many cases!

Alcoa Scholars, Yosemite

The essence of NatureBridge programs is to put kids in nature and let the magic happen naturally. However, there are some unsung heroes who are absolutely essential to the success of our programs. NatureBridge educators are the glue that really make the experience transformational for our students. They are more than just trip leaders, activity coordinators, and chaperones. Sure, they teach Scholars about nature, science and exploration. But the discussions they facilitate revolve around expanding the Scholars’ life perspectives, exposing them to new ideals and frames of thought, and helping them discover things about each other and themselves on a deeper, sometimes more spiritual level.

Needless to say, the Scholars were attached to their educators at the hip after the backpacking portion of the program. When we met up with the educators and the scholars  when they returned from their journey, everyone present was utterly euphoric. I would have never guessed that they’d just spent six days in the sheer wilderness without running water or the comfort of a bed. 

Scholars hugging
Scholars embracing after returning from the back country.

The backcountry expedition united them, but the educators made them FAMILY. #

Even the Scholars who had no previous backpacking experience came back with a smile on their face and little hint of the strenuous hikes they’d been on for a week. Many returned with a completely different demeanor. In our post-trip interviews with them, some students shared how the trip helped them find a newfound confidence. One Scholar noted being bullied in her home country, but now feeling that she wanted to be a leader for others who may be going through similar circumstances. Another Scholar who had been notably shy and quiet came back bubbly and eager to be interviewed, unlike her previous response when we had asked her to be interviewed, which was a flat out "please don't make me!" Overwhelmingly, Scholars noted that they felt a reignited passion to pursue their dreams, which ranged from being a surgeon to even becoming a NatureBridge educator someday.

Alcoa Scholars backpacking

I learned a lot about the Alcoa Scholars program after shadowing this year’s participants in Yosemite. Yet I learned even more about the power of nature. Not the nature that typically comes to mind along with giant trees, endemic plant species or gorgeous wildlife.

Instead, I came to have a new understanding and appreciation for the power of human nature, its beauty, and our natural inclination to connect with each other in meaningful and impactful ways. 

I'm confident that our 2017 Yosemite Alcoa Scholars have gone back to their homes with a unique perspective on life and how they want to live their own as enlightened young adults equipped to take the world by storm. These high school juniors and seniors will go on to do amazing things, no doubt, and I'm excited to see what these future humanitarians, scientists, doctors, and change-makers have in store for our planet.

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