Stories from the Field

Alumni Spotlight: Shirley Spencer

Combined Shape Copy Created with Sketch.

For former NatureBridge (previously Yosemite Institute) educator Shirley Spencer, her career journey began with a powerful sense of place and a deep love for Yosemite National Park. Beginning with her work at Camp Wawona in the early 1980s and extending to her long tenure as a Yosemite Institute (YI) instructor and her later service as an interpretive ranger for the National Park Service (NPS), Shirley has poured her passion into introducing others to the wonders of the Sierra Nevada for over four decades. “I always felt like I wasn’t ‘the thing,’” Shirley reflects, “but I stood there and opened the window for my students” to make amazing discoveries.

Shirley began working as an instructor for Yosemite Institute in 1986, a position she held until 2004 (with a stint as program manager from 1989-90). As Shirley continued to teach programs in the field, demand for her leadership grew. Returning teachers and schools started to request her by name, and even returning students insisted on being paired with Shirley. She fondly remembers an “all-girls trip with Shirley” dreamed up by high schooler seniors from La Cañada High School—all of whom had been in Shirley’s trail group a few years earlier. “I was in love with my students,” Shirley declares. “I poured my soul into them for five days.”

Yosemite Institute became a springboard for my career to so many things that I’m so grateful for.
Shirley Spencer, former NatureBridge educator

Through the relationships she built at Yosemite Institute, Shirley was connected to several remarkable career opportunities. She was invited to participate with Nature Games in Japan and work with both the GLOBE organization and Road Scholar, all of which were once-in-a-lifetime experiences that she credits to the connections she made at Yosemite Institute. Shirley also served on staff with Naturalist at Large in Ventura, CA—“They hired me on the spot because of YI!” 

Following the completion of her teaching credential and her graduate work in environmental studies of the Sierra Nevada (both of which she pursued while an instructor at YI), Shirley became an interpretive park ranger with NPS, working within Yosemite National Park at Wawona. Later, Shirley developed programs for Evergreen Conference Center of Oakhurst (ECCO), for whom she created a three-park program featuring Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Shirley taught for ECCO for over 20 years, splitting her time between teaching for them and working with NPS.

When Tenaya Lodge in Yosemite called and invited Shirley to lead a wine and paint class at the resort, she moved out of the field and into the classroom—the art classroom, that is. In addition to teaching watercolor painting, Shirley wrote and illustrated four books, including The Flowering Shrubs of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada (published by Yosemite Conservancy) and a children’s book titled Our National Parks Alphabet Book. Her botanical studies and art work became well-known in Yosemite, leading to her winning the Art in the Park contest. Shirley has worked with Yosemite Conservancy in various roles over many years, and it was through this connection that she taught Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) workers in the Mariposa Grove and met another remarkable NatureBridge alum, Anya Gupta, who was serving with YCC. Anya credits Shirley as one of the most inspiring people in her life, and Shirley was one of her role models and mentors as Anya herself went on to serve as a park ranger with NPS. Shirley, her husband Mark, and Anya remain close friends today, and Anya lovingly refers to them as her “nature grandparents.”

To be able to open the science and the beauty and the incredible environment of the Sierra Nevada to people and see their response to such a spectacular place reaffirmed my love of the Sierra Nevada as well. It was such a privilege to be in that position.
Shirley Spencer, former NatureBridge educator

Today, Shirley and her husband Mark split their time between Yosemite and Southern California. For the winter months, they enjoy the desert beauty of Borrego Springs, CA, and then they return to Fish Camp, CA for the summer season. Shirley continues to teach watercolor classes in both Borrego Springs and Wawona, and she works as “a very part-time” librarian in Wawona. She and Mark also serve as park volunteers at Anza Borrego State Park.

Thank you, Shirley, for your long legacy of sharing the magic of our public lands with others, including your many years of teaching NatureBridge students!

Photos courtesy of Shirley Spencer


Check out these other