Austin Park Ranger Cadets: Training the Next Generation of Texas Conservationists
East Austin native and Austin Park Ranger Ellyssa Saldivar spent her childhood outside—climbing trees, riding bikes and gardening with her grandfather. Growing up, enjoying the outdoors was a hobby, not a career path.
“I think in our communities, people of color see being outside as a leisure activity, not a way to make money,” says Saldivar.
Saldivar was a junior at Akins High School when her relationship with nature changed forever. On a whim, she joined her school's Park Ranger Cadets program, a unique learning opportunity that exposes students to environmental careers via hands-on ecological education and job training.
Lured by its promise of kayaking, rock climbing and outdoor exploration, Saldivar did not expect the experience to lead to a full-time job as a city of Austin park ranger.
“I didn’t even know Austin had park rangers. I learned so much about the city’s green spaces,” Saldivar says.
Through Park Ranger Cadets, the city of Austin and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) hope to connect youth who may lack exposure and pathways to conservation careers, with new job possibilities. Looking to the future, TNC hopes the program will foster a new, more diverse generation of conservationists.
Learning Outside the Box at Akins High School
The city started the cadets program five years ago at Akins High School, providing a yearlong practicum that exposes students to Austin’s green spaces, teaches them foundational ecological field skills and other skills for outdoor vocations, in addition to preparing them for college. Saldivar says she learned public speaking, networking, resume writing, and more, which primed her for life beyond high school.
The summer portion of the program provides paid positions as nature-based program specialists, during which the students gain hands-on conservation skills and receive mentoring support for finding and preparing for their next career steps.
TNC became a program partner in 2018 while working with the city on ecological monitoring projects in municipal parks. The two organizations saw an opportunity to enrich the cadets program by engaging youth in ongoing, existing conservation work in Austin.
Boosting Diversity in Conservation Careers
“White men have traditionally been overrepresented in our industry, and so a key component of this program was exploring how to increase diversity in environmental science and conservation careers,” says Amy Belaire, director of science and strategy for TNC in Texas.
The cadets learn an array of ecological field methods, like air quality monitoring, habitat assessment, and wildlife camera observation, as they help collect essential data around the health of Austin’s ecosystems.
What’s more, this collaborative partnership between the city and TNC has created paid positions. A handful of program alums work as peer mentors for the incoming class of cadets.
Park Ranger Cadets: Learning From Peers
“It’s much more compelling and impactful to learn from students who are slightly older than you and who come from the same neighborhood or same background as you,” says Belaire.
Saldivar enjoyed her position a peer mentor, which was the first time she realized how much she enjoyed teaching. Today, she co-manages the Park Ranger Cadets program for the city in addition to providing educational park programming for residents of all ages throughout Austin.
“Whether it’s the seniors, or the high school students, or the little ones—I just love seeing what sparks joy and captures their attention in the outdoors,” says Saldivar. “I hope the students see themselves in me, because I was in the exact same position a few years ago. It’s because of this exact same class that I’m in my current job now. I love getting to share that with them.”