Diversity and mentorship are a walk in the park

July 18, 2018

The Lakeshore Nature Preserve has long been established as a perfect summertime spot known for its breathtaking view of Lake Mendota, iconic fire pit at the edge of Picnic Point and beautiful wildlife habitat. Recent environmental studies alumna Brooke Nelson hopes to make use of these features to promote diversity within environmental studies and build relationships between students and faculty.

On Friday afternoons this summer, Nelson leads small groups through the Preserve for the “Hike & Learn” series. An early session included students from the Nelson Environmental Observation & Information (EOI) professional master’s program who met with faculty mentor, Professor Alfonso Morales, to talk about their professional ambitions and next steps after finishing their educational program.

Nelson said these were exactly the kinds of outcomes she hoped to facilitate for her hiking participants. “I think creating these spaces where you can bond with peers or a faculty mentor who are resilient and made it through difficult times will help facilitate a sense of belonging on campus,” Nelson said.

To help successfully host the hiking series, Nelson, along with Sanober Mirza from the Community Environmental Scholars Program (CESP), applied for a $1,000 Lakeshore Nature Preserve Student Engagement Grant. The funding is meant to facilitate the use of the Preserve as a resource for education among undergraduates, specifically underrepresented minority student populations.

The “Hike & Learn” idea began in a CESP seminar when Nelson and Mirza noticed that there weren’t as many students of color in their environmental studies classes. They decided to team up with Jazmin Vargas, who is also part of CESP and the UW-Madison diversity scholarship program PEOPLE. Together, they hope to pass the leadership onto Vargas to continue the project beyond the summer and connect with other diversity pipeline programs like Posse or the Center for Educational Opportunity.

Nelson said diversity was especially important because natural areas and parks historically have not been a welcome space for people of color. Mirza said she didn’t become interested in the environment until going to college, largely because opportunities to engage with nature weren’t as readily available to her. Now opportunities are everywhere on campus. “UW has a whole array of classrooms, the Lakeshore Preserve is an impressive one. That has changed my career path and what I want to do,” she said.

Mirza said she had a different experience with nature than a mainstream environmentalist, but that difference in backgrounds brings a unique perspective to the table. She said there may be other underrepresented students who might be interested in the environment, but just haven’t had the experience yet.

“People of color are highly underrepresented in the environmental world. This leads to an issue since there is not a diverse representation of experiences at the table when discussing environmental actions and decisions,” Mirza said.

Mirza said the “Hike & Learn” experience can promote a greater diversity of voices and ultimately more equitable and creative decisions.

The inaugural “Hike & Learn” session took place in June. Each session will be held with a group of about 10 students and a faculty mentor exploring different pathways within the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. The next session will be held Friday, July 20, 2018 at 11:30 a.m. with Seth McGee, lab manager of the UW-Madison Biocore program. Register online here.