Oceans of possibilities for emerging teen leaders

Sometimes, a summer job is just a summer job. And sometimes, it changes your life. Monterey Bay Aquarium strives to have a life-changing impact on the young people who take part in our teen programs—part of our commitment to shape new generations of ocean conservation leaders. It’s the vision that drives creation of our new Bechtel Family Center for Ocean Education and Leadership, where we’ll be able to double the participation in these and other programs.

Even before the Center opens in 2019, we’re having this kind of impact on young women and men. And they are already making a difference in the world: as conservation leaders, educators and ocean advocates. Here are some of their stories.

Gaining skills for future success

Consider Roberto Flores. He was born and raised in Watsonville, in a neighborhood rife with gang violence.

Teen participants in the WATCH program take part in field research studies, and build their public speaking skills when they report out their findings in a local and national forums.

“There were people killed on my street,” says Roberto, who’s now 25. In 2006, when he was a freshman in high school, he had the opportunity to become a Volunteer Guide at the Aquarium, helping guests get the most out of their visits and promoting an understanding of ocean conservation. From there, he became a Teen Conservation Leader, and a participant in Watsonville Area Teens Conserving Habitats (WATCH), an Aquarium initiative with Pajaro Valley high schools.

As he moved from position to position, somehow, the Aquarium and its programs were always there, providing a much-needed lifeline—and offering a little bit of a tailwind to sustain the momentum he’d established by dint of his own drive and enthusiasm.

“I was a shy kid—always the last one to hit the dance floor,” says Roberto. “But after the WATCH program, I became the de facto person to speak in front of other people.”

After starting as a Teen Conservation Leader, Roberto Flores went on to earn a college degree and now works full time with our teen programs.

He eventually graduated from the University of California, San Diego, with a B.A. in psychology. His association with the Aquarium continued, as a part-time WATCH program assistant and now as a full-time teen program coordinator. He’s also worked as a bilingual conservation educator for the City of Watsonville.

“Honestly, I wasn’t necessarily knowledgeable about conservation when I started all this,” says Roberto. “Now it’s become a big part of my life. But what was really valuable were the soft skills of how to be professional, how to research, and how to present effectively. These are the skills I needed in order to be successful in college, and in my personal and professional development afterward.”

Someday, Roberto adds, “I might start my own nonprofit or after-school program, or work with youth to empower them to go out and do what they want to do.”

Igniting an ocean conservation movement

Like many kids, Shelby O’Neil, 16, of San Juan Bautista, experienced a spark of inspiration while peering into the iconic sea otter exhibit at the Aquarium.

Shelby O’Neil and other Teen Conservation Leaders collected nearly 350 pledges at the Aquarium for her “No Straw November” campaign.

“I’d gone to the Aquarium since I was a little kid,” she says. “I loved inland animals, but the ocean didn’t interest me much at first. But after seeing the otters, I became fascinated.”

While in middle school at Monte Vista Christian in Watsonville, she applied to the Aquarium’s Young Women in Science program—and was accepted.

“I learned about the importance of the ecosystem, and how sea otters need a perfect balance,” she says. From there, she applied to be a Teen Conservation Leader. “I was accepted as a freshman. I wasn’t even in high school yet—it was the youngest you could be.” (She’s now a junior at San Benito High School.)

Her experiences inspired her to start her own conservation initiatives independent of the Aquarium.

The confidence she developed through Aquarium teen programs propelled Shelby O’Neil to speak about plastic pollution at the 2017 Dreamforce conference in San Francisco.

“For a Girl Scout Gold Award, I created a nonprofit called Jr Ocean Guardians, teaching younger schoolchildren the importance of the ocean and how they can help,” she says. “‘No Straw November,’ my current campaign, challenges people to avoid single-use plastic straws [a significant source of ocean plastic pollution]. They can keep a tally of how many they’re offered, and how many they refuse, and see the total for the year. I’m trying to get people to be more self-aware.”

With the confidence her Aquarium experiences inspired, she spoke before the California Coastal Commission, asking—and winning—its support for No Straw November. She wrote a guest commentary about the initiative that was published by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, and was invited to speak about the issue (at minute 57:00) during an ocean issues panel at the annual Dreamforce conference in San Francisco.

Shelby credits the Aquarium for providing the impetus for her many ventures. “It’s been inspiring to meet all these great people, learn about ocean issues, and have the opportunity to inform people about how our actions can help or hurt the earth.”

From Mexico to Monterey

Luis David, 20, spent the first eight years of his life in Mexico before coming to California. When he was a sophomore at Monterey High School, an Aquarium representative visited to promote the Volunteer Guide Program. He became a guide at age 16 and has stayed connected to the Aquarium ever since.

Teen social media channels highlight ocean animals, conservation issues and #TeensOfTheAquarium like Pranav Bellur and Karla Silva, who are learning about veterinary medicine as Teen Conservation Leaders.

He participated in a pilot program in the education department, using social media to help empower participants and promote conservation. He’s currently a full-time student at California State University, Monterey Bay studying marine science, and volunteers at the Aquarium on weekends.

As a social media program assistant, he helps with data management for Plate Watch, a citizen science project in which students collect sediment plates off a local pier and send the results to the Smithsonian for analysis.

Like many other student volunteers, Luis credits the Aquarium with helping him realize his potential.

Starting as a 16-year-old volunteer guide, Luis David credits the Aquarium with helping him realize his full potential.

“I was a bit of an introvert,” he says. “The biggest value I received from the Aquarium was that I came out of my shell a little. That opened a lot of doors in the workforce, and academically.”

Like many others, he hopes to give back one day, helping other students receive the same opportunities he benefited from. “Someday, when the Aquarium completes its new education building, I’d love to be involved in a position there,” he says.

A world of talent

The stories are almost endless—Aquarium teen program participants have gone on to become presenters at other institutions, veterinary professionals, biologists, advocates for social and environmental justice, scientists and more.

Grant support from Bank of America helped us hire teens for summer positions, including as Guest Ambassadors.

The Aquarium’s teen programs are as varied as its participants. And the programs continue to grow in scope, thanks in part to a $125,000 grant from Bank of America. The grant, presented last May, supports paid summer employment for local young adults, recent graduates of area high schools who work full-time in the Guest Experience and Education departments.

Teen programs include:

Student Oceanography Club: For middle school students (grades 6-8) who are interested in learning about local ecosystems, marine science and ocean conservation. During the school year they explore the kelp forest, get outdoors, interact with local marine researchers, and visit scientific institutions around Monterey Bay.

Teen Conservation Leaders: Students ages 14 and older learn basic marine biology and ocean conservation, then provide exhibit interpretation for Aquarium guests, and support summer camp programs for other teens.

Watsonville Area Teens Conserving Habitats (WATCH): High school students explore the Pajaro River watershed and meet local scientists to learn about environmental issues and participate in restoration efforts. After the summer, they develop their own field research projects. They present their findings at the Aquarium and at conferences, including some in Washington, D.C. When they complete the program, they receive a scholarship to support their college education.

Young Women in Science: This week-long, summer day-camp for middle school students is designed to get young women excited about and involved in science, the ocean and conservation. A variety of hands-on field activities increase knowledge about the importance of sea otters and spark a personal connection with the natural world that will lead them to become stewards of the ocean. Girls can explore ocean habitats from kayaks and boogie boards, and through surface scuba diving. Two camps, conducted in both English and Spanish, are offered each summer.

Help inspire the next wave of ocean leaders! 

— Geoff Drake

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