Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Aguirre.
Imagine sailing to Catalina Island on a look-alike pirate ship, or spending four days hiking through the red rocks of Bryce Canyon and Zion. If this is something you’ve always wanted to do, it can now easily become a reality.
The Outdoor Leadership Academy at Dixie State University gives students this opportunity. OLA has partnered with the National Parks Service to create more diversity in the National Parks and public lands’ visitor demographics.
According to OLA’s website, its mission is to provide outdoor experiences and leadership development for underrepresented youth.
“National Parks Service has realized that their visitation is not demographically very diverse,” said Kelly Bringhurst, director of community-engaged learning. “White, middle-class is the typical people who visit the parks. So, a lot of people from minority groups and other underrepresented groups haven’t had experience going when they were young; so, we [OLA] want people to go and enjoy it.”
It is important for underrepresented youth to be given the opportunity to explore the National Parks, even if they aren’t the biggest fan after their visit, said Erin O’Brien, biology department chair and head of the OLA.
O’Brien said youth qualify as anyone who is 35 or younger, but most students a part of OLA are high school and college-aged.
“We [OLA] want to help underrepresented youth to experience public lands and national parks in a meaningful way that helps them to establish an emotional connect to public lands while also helping them develop leadership skills,” O’Brien said.
OLA creates a safe environment for students to be in and they can really express how they are feeling, Bringhurst said.
“I almost don’t want to graduate so I can just stay on for as long as I can,” said Elizabeth Aguirre, a senior biology major from St. George and intern for OLA. “I get to meet new people, experience new places, and it’s really helped me become a better leader as well and helped me open up more and break out of my shell.”
Aguirre said they go on really cool trips, such as four-day hiking trips through Zion and sailing trips to Catalina.
O’Brien said the goal with OLA is to create a “ripple effect,” meaning students who are a part of OLA encourage other students to participate and the cycle continues on.
“Don’t be afraid to come,” Aguirre said. “I meet so many students who say they don’t do well with the outdoors, and all I can say to them is to give it a shot. You’ll find that you’ll actually get more out of it than you think.”
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