When I first came to the United States in 2002, the word “environmentalist”  was utterly foreign to me. I grew up in Ecuador, where connections to the natural world existed in our everyday lives, but we never labeled ourselves as such.

Despite the odds, these incredible opportunities allowed me to blossom into and embrace my own definition of an environmentalist. In 2015, I was accepted as a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar at the University of Washington (DDCSP @ UW) where I was empowered to embrace my narrative and my peers’ to shape the my vision of what environmental justice can look like, and I haven’t looked back since.

None of these opportunities came easy, nor is the journey over. I struggled to thrive in these spaces, feeling mentally and physically unfit around my more privileged peers. Time and again rejection after rejection and continued skepticism followed. I did not get into the DDCSP @ UW Program the first time around, nor did my plans after college come together as I thought they would.

Today, I am a proud graduate of Middlebury College with an Environmental Studies degree, and I serve as the Community Outreach Coordinator for a community center in the Bronx, and as the NYC Outings Leader for Latino Outdoors.

I’ve been blessed to be where I am due to countless individuals and organizations that simply saw what most wouldn’t see in an immigrant child: they believed in me. I will never know why or how I became so lucky to be where I am today. It came with sweat, tears and hard work, but most importantly, from the hope of those who never doubted me when they had a million reasons to do so.

It’s our job now to continue seeing hope for the future in those after us, and becoming advocates for programs like LEAF and DDCSP that truly empower the future of an inclusive conservation movement. Creating last communities and networks, and passing the torch forward to new environmental leaders that dominant discourses ignore is a task all of us with the privilege of opportunity must do.