Outdoor Leadership Academy allows under-represented students new experiences, new connections

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The Outdoor Leadership Academy takes minority students on trips to national parks each year in order to give them an experience they would otherwise be unable to have.

Dixie State University has been the lead of the organization since 2015. OLA has been in existence since 2013 and was originally run by Grand Canyon Parashant.

Biology department chair Erin O’Brein, who runs the OLA, said it is a project to help change the visitation and employment of under-represented individuals at national parks because the parks have difficulty attracting ethnic and racial minority groups as visitors and as employees.

“Under-represented [includes] ethnic and racial minorities, LGBTQ+, youth with disabilities and also socio-economic [handicaps],” O’Brien said.

Although the program’s primary focus is disabled and under-represented individuals, anyone is able to be a part of the program; under-represented is an umbrella term, which covers a diverse group of people instead of singling out any one trait as under-represented because there are any number of different people who have disabilities or are non-traditional students, O’Brien said.

O’Brien said OLA creates experiences at the parks for under-represented youth in hopes they can make a connection to the land as a resource to use and gain an interest in working at these parks and recreation areas.

“[OLA is] providing these students with the skills necessary, not to just get outside, but to know what to do when they’re in those positions and how to apply for internships [and] jobs,” said Elizabeth Aguirre, a junior biology major from St. George.

O’Brien said OLA is funded by the National Park Service, a part of the federal government that applies for funding it then passes on to the OLA program. It funneled about $180,000 into the program as of this year. These funds make it possible for the program to take these under-represented individuals on trips to the parks.

The program attracts students from all departments at DSU, from exercise science to communication, Aguirre said.

Hannah Flores, an exercise science major from Palm Springs, said it is important to diversify national parks because it is hard for people to relate to the environment when there is not enough representation of different cultural groups.

“It inspires you when you are little,” Flores said, “[When] you see a little kid and they look up and see for example, an Hispanic individual at a national park, they say ‘I want to be like that person because they made it.’”

OLA will be taking a trip in February to Grand Canyon Parashant Monument instead of during spring break, which has been its practice in years past. As the program continues, they hope to have a website up later this year to help get the word out to others who want to participate in making our national parks more diverse in its visitors and present or future employees.