Upon starting my Earth and Environmental Science major at Vanderbilt I was a bit startled by how few minorities were present in the major. In truth, I often felt internally vexed about my choosing earth science as a major. I wondered why so few blacks were involved in environmental science and outdoor recreation? I begged my peers to consider the major and all the adventures that go along with it, but to no avail. I began to feel as if outdoor recreation was exclusively for white people.
While studying here in the UK, my earth science classes are filled with students from all over the world ranging from the Middle East to Africa to South America, reaffirming the idea that a love for nature and the environment was never a “white” thing. However, back home in the states racial, socioeconomic, and gender diversity is less present.
So let’s talk about this.
I sat down with my friend Ashley Nmoh to hear her take on the subject. She informed me that she personally felt turned off by outdoor recreation until she had a pivotal experience through the Nashville People Exploring Nature program. People Exploring Nature, or P.E.N. for short, is designed to engage minority students from Nashville’s inner city with nature. As a leader in the program, she felt a personal shift from being wary of nature to seeking it as a haven. Below she shares a bit of her memories of the program.
1) Why did you decide to participate in the PEN pals Program?
I decided to apply to be the Assistant Director of the PEN Pals Program after my coach asked me to apply. I didn’t know much about it at first but the pay was good and it involved giving back to lower income, inner city children which is something I am really passionate about coming from a lower income family myself. At first, I was a little hesitant about applying to a nature camp because I had very limited experience in nature myself since my family never took me hiking, fishing, etc as a kid, but I was excited for new experiences and to learn new things.
2) Did you notice any change in yourself or in your “PEN” pals after
the program was finished?
I grew so much that summer. After this experience, I have come to appreciate nature tremendously more. Even now in college despite my busy schedule, I try to drag my friends out to parks and to go hiking with me occasionally and sometimes I even choose to study outdoors which is something I wouldn’t have chosen to do before. I find peace in nature now, where as before, I would be so annoyed with bugs and the blazing sun to even go outside. As a person that has always been super interested in science and biology, I am now able to see the beauty in all living things, not just humans. My favourite unit in my biology class this year was actually the plant unit which is something I wouldn’t have been as interested in if I hadn’t been exposed to the beauty of nature through PEN Pals. Now I view nature as an adventure. After experiencing deer, owls, skunks and other creatures through PEN Pals, I’m no longer afraid of what might lie inside of it. I also learned how to start a fire, build a tent, and do many other things I wouldn’t have known how to do before. I am also a lot more peaceful now and less plugged into technology, and other distractors of the world.
The same was true for my PEN Pals. A lot of them, especially the girls, came on the trip pessimistic about going into nature and being bitten by bugs. Others were extremely excited to come because of the past experiences they had or the past experiences that had been told about. Me and my other work partner, Phoebe, had to go to the community centers each week before the kids came to camp to hype them up about the experience since many of the kids weren’t always excited about it. But during the camp, I watched the kids absolutely fall in love with nature, animals and hiking. They would come telling me new things they learned on their hikes with the naturalists and would be nicer to bugs instead of wanting to kill them. A lot of them snuck their technology to the camp and would try to play games on their technology the first day but the longer they stayed, the more invested they became in nature and they forgot all outside distractions. Many kids would even cry when it was time to leave. They left with skills and knowledge they wouldn’t have been exposed to before and really began to appreciate nature. The kids began to open up to me the longer they stayed at camp as well. They would tell me of all the problems they had at home and all of their worries and told me how they really felt at peace in nature and were happy to escape it all for the few days they were there. Many said they would encourage their families to go on hikes with them when they left.
3) Why do you think it’s important for minorities to be involved in
natural parks and outdoor recreation?
I’ve noticed that a lot of my African American friends scoff at nature and look at me crazy when I say I want to go hiking. I have to literally drag my friends to go with me but when I do, they always enjoy it. I think nature provides an escape from all the injustices that go on in the world and nature provides the opportunity to just “be”. I think an atmosphere like this is especially important for minorities to have since minorities are usually the victims of many injustices in this country. Nature and outdoor recreation provide a place to realize that the world is so much bigger than us and our problems. With global warming and deforestation happening at an alarming rate, preservation of natural parks is paramount and one can only understand the treasure and beauty that lies in nature through experiencing it. For minorities to become advocates for nature, they have to know the beauty that lies inside of it. Nature is also a great teacher. I have learned so many lessons by just sitting down and soaking in all that nature has to teach me. I think that there are certain lessons that nature has to teach everyone.
After hearing Ashley’s take, I learned that my experience fishing and exploring the countryside of my grandparent’s farm was worlds apart from her experience growing up in the center of a metropolis like Nashville. In fact, many minorities grow up in urban environments which explains the gradual shift from “fear to love” towards the outdoors. Perhaps the real issue is the lack of encouraging opportunities that focus on engaging minorities in environmental sciences from a young age. Luckily, the P.E.N program is just one of many programs focused on helping students get acquainted with nature.
As far as the Vanderbilt Earth and Environmental science department, a new coalition has been created to increase diversity recruitment and retention within the department. Additionally, the EES department has a new partnership with Tennessee State University(TSU), a Historically Black College. The program, Earth Horizon’s, allows Vanderbilt and TSU students to take courses in earth science, forestry, GIS, hydrology, soil science and geosciences at either university if they are not offered at the student’s home school. The new partnership also includes a senior career seminar, post graduate research internship, and a maymester looking at the geology of TN. If you have any questions about the Earth Horizons program please contact Jessica Oster at Jessica.firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website at earthhorizons.org
Have you participated in any of these programs? What do you think are some of the reasons fewer minorities are involved in earth science. Let me know in the comments below.
Ashley is a junior majoring in Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University.
Tori Phillips is a senior majoring in Earth and Environmental Science at Vanderbilt University.
The P.E.N. program takes place in Nashville’s Percy Warner Parks. To find out more about the program click here