For Alicia Highland, Educator and School Partnerships Coordinator at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, WA, her love of science was partly ignited by an “F” on a science test as a little girl in elementary school in Ohio. Highland recalls this test as a turning point and moment that has continued to have a big impact on her life because of how her teacher handled her failing grade. It’s an experience that has driven her to Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands and to study marine biology in La Jolla, California.
“I had a teacher who really inspired me and made me feel that science was something that was magical and could help me learn more about the world and explore things outside of my normal life,” she said.
The same teacher called Highland into the hallway, telling her that she had failed the test and knew that she could do better than what the results had displayed. She then offered to let her retake the test. This time, the test proved Highland’s teacher right. Scoring an “A”, she had indeed made a mistake by skipping one of the questions on a bubble test answering sheet.
“She saw something in me and had faith that I could do it. I had a math teacher that was the exact opposite,” Highland recalled.
She explained that she was the only black girl in her class (a reoccurring theme in her life) and how this sometimes influenced teachers having lower expectations of her. Her teacher’s confidence in her abilities made an impact that aided in overcoming these often limiting expectations.
Based on Highland's experience in her early education, it is no surprise that she now stands in the forefront, leading education for diverse groups of students, from elementary school to graduate level. One of her roles includes designing curriculum and programming for the Advanced Inquiry Program, which offers two graduate degrees through a partnership between Woodland Park Zoo and Miami University- Oxford. The second role is developing curriculum and teaching inquiry-based environmental education to elementary and middle school students and teachers in Kent and Issaquah School districts in Washington. In these programs, she teaches students about amphibian habitats, co-existing with carnivores, and how to see their everyday environments as exciting ecosystems. She also leads courses at the zoo for adults.
“What I really love about science is sharing it with others and getting people engaged and excited about it,” Highland said, adding “That is what makes me go to work everyday.”
The road to this career path was winding, however.
Highland started off at The Ohio State University studying Conservation Biology, where she admittedly struggled to find the right path and support as a black woman in science. Eventually, she left The Ohio State and finished at Kent State University. At Kent State, she found essential community and direction from professors and advisors who gave concrete advice on finding internships, supportive community and mentors. A pivotal experience for Highland was as a National Science Foundation Undergraduates Fellow with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. For the first time, she was able to be around a group of people of color who were in science working toward similar goals. As a fellow, she also received GRE training and hands-on experience in a marine biology lab. She has had other internships, including with the National Forest Services and Student Conservation Association and later went to earn a M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Washington.
Highland stresses how important mentorship is while acknowledging how challenging finding mentors who have shared experiences was for her. She credits the mentors that she has found as being instrumental in her feeling empowered as a woman in science and for helping her navigate the difficult world that the environmental field can be for a person of color. Having dealt with her share of micro and macro aggressions, she does feel like she has been able to find camaraderie with a network of women mentors and people in community organizations like Environmental Professionals of Color (EPOC).
Her advice to undergraduates is, “Seek out someone who can advocate for you. If a professor or someone shows interest in you in a professional way, don’t be afraid to pursue it because it can help advance you in the direction you want to go.”
For Highland, her next steps may be to study aquatic ecology and become Dr. Highland, as her father urges her. However, she feels she is at the right place at this time in her career journey.
As a black woman in the environmental field, Highland hopes to continue to shift the culture in environmental education and to shift conversations toward addressing issues that are generally glazed over-- like issues of environmental injustice disproportionately affecting people of color. She feels that children seeing her in her current role with Woodland Park Zoo has an impact, and she enjoys being able to show other black students that “somebody who looks like them” can be interested in science and earn a living doing so.
“I can demonstrate to people that you can do this, and you can be in this space and do really wonderful things,” Highland said.
If you are interested in hearing more about Alicia Highland’s journey or would like to contact her, check out her LinkedIn profile.