Stories from the Field

2024 Student of the Year: Kai Diaz

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At NatureBridge, we celebrate the stewards of today and foster the development of the stewards of tomorrow, working to inspire environmental stewardship in all our participants. Our goal is to motivate our students to make waves and be changemakers in their communities and for our planet.

Each year, NatureBridge honors a student who has demonstrated leadership, growth and a commitment to protecting our natural world as a result of their participation in a NatureBridge program. This year’s honoree will be recognized and will speak at An Evening Outside with NatureBridge on Thursday, May 16 at our Golden Gate campus.

We are thrilled to announce our 2024 Student of the Year: Kai Diaz.

Kai’s connection to NatureBridge began when Kellyn Hardin, Earth and Space teacher at Porterville High School in Porterville, CA, organized several outdoor experiences for Kai’s sophomore class, including a trip to NatureBridge Yosemite that was scheduled to take place in April 2020. After that trip was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, attempts were made to reschedule the class’ visit. Finally, in the spring of 2022, Kai and ten of their classmates, now high school seniors, arrived at Yosemite National Park. For all of the 11 participants, it was their first time visiting Yosemite.

When we went through Tunnel View, I think my jaw actually dropped… [I remember thinking] “This should be one of the seven wonders of the world!”
Kai Diaz, 2024 Student of the Year

Entering the park felt like entering a whole new world to Kai: “When we went through Tunnel View, I think my jaw actually dropped!” Kai also recalls taking pictures with their phone and attempting to text them to their parents (despite the lack of cell coverage), wanting their family to see what they were seeing. “This should be one of the seven wonders of the world,” Kai remembers thinking. “It was a really cool and bonding experience that we all got to visit this wonder together.” 

Amidst inclement weather and challenging hikes, the group bolstered one another and grew closer together; Kai laughs that “We were literally picking each other up!” as they descended the slippery trail from Inspiration Point in rain and hail. Kai also recalls the bonding effect of the students speaking Spanish among themselves and their educator Sarah joining in, sharing jokes and slang with them in the group’s preferred language. “What I enjoyed the most was getting a sense of community” from the experience, Kai says. When the Porterville students returned to their high school, another teacher at the school created 3D prints of Yosemite Valley for each of them to keep as a memento from their trip; Kai still has theirs!

I want to protect the parks for future generations—I need to go into this line of work.
Kai Diaz, 2024 Student of the Year

Kai describes their inspiration to study conservation and their passion to preserve natural spaces in their community as directly derived from their NatureBridge experience. Their Yosemite trip “was so powerful because it gave me as a kid from the outskirts of the city the chance to go see other places outdoors… It really solidified that I want to go into conservation,” Kai says. “I want to protect the parks for future generations—I need to go into this line of work.”

Originally, Kai’s “ultimate goal” was to become a park ranger with the National Park Service (NPS); however, since working with the California Conservation Corps in the Sierra Nevada, Kai has refined that goal to include education and outreach. “I think doing interpretive work and helping kids connect to the parks will be a lot more meaningful to me,” Kai says. They cite the example of their NatureBridge educator, Sarah Sugarman, who helped Kai to “see myself outdoors. I thought I could be someone like her.” Kai also recalls the impact of Andrés Escalante, the Yosemite park ranger (and current NatureBridge staff member) who “made an effort to make a meaningful connection with each of us” during Kai’s NatureBridge trip. Andrés’ presence “as someone who looked like me” working in the outdoors offered Kai an example of meaningful representation in that field. Kai is now pursuing a career with California State Parks following their graduation next month from Bakersfield College with a degree in forestry. 

This summer Kai will be working as a seasonal park aide at Colonel Allensworth State Park in Allensworth, CA. After that, Kai hopes to be assigned to work in a state park within California’s Sierra Nevada, a region they consider to be their own backyard. “I look outside and see the foothills and the mountains,” Kai says. “I want to give back to my community.”

Kai, your commitment to preserving and sharing with others the wonders of our natural spaces is truly inspiring, and we are so proud to have you represent NatureBridge as our 2024 Student of the Year!

Editor’s note: Don’t miss your opportunity to meet Kai in person and hear them describe their NatureBridge experience at “An Evening Outside with NatureBridge” on May 16 at our Golden Gate campus. Get your tickets to this unforgettable event today—ticket sales close on April 26.

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