Story+Gallery: El Pasoan, UTEP Grad, shares AmeriCorps Experience from South Carolina

In honor of AmeriCorps Week 2017, I would like to share my story of service, with the hope that other will commit their skills, knowledge, and time to tackle pressing problems and strengthen our nation.


“I love nature!” A young girl from a third-grade class from Richland County, South Carolina proudly declared, while the rest of her classmates’ eyes gazed one last time at the Spanish Moss trickling from the tall, lean trees that surrounded them, towering above the carpet of dry pine needles beneath their feet.

For many of the third-graders that participate in Congaree National Park’s Linking Ecology and Art of Floodplains (LEAF) program, it is the first time that they have visited a national park and experienced wilderness.

The experience of hiking in the largest remnant of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States is a unique opportunity to view the regional—and national—heritage.


As part of the Geoscientists-in- the-Parks (GIP) program, a partnership between the Geological Society of America (GSA), Environmental Stewards™, and the AmeriCorps program, I had the privilege of guiding approximately 900 third-graders from Richland and Lexington Counties, SC, on a journey to discover their natural environment.

I arrived at Congaree National Park on a Monday afternoon with my family—after driving 28 hours across the United Sates from El Paso, Texas to Hopkins, South Carolina. This was my first visit this far east.

As we drove through the entrance road to the park, I watched the tall, skinny trees along the side of the route. I felt the plummeting sensation that you get when you have made a right decision, but you are in an unfamiliar place by yourself, and there is no turning back. But, my enduring interest in promoting an appreciation of nature and stewardship, eased my nervousness and pushed me to integrate myself into the vibrant nature and community of Congaree.

During my unforgettable Geoscientists-in-the-Parks (GIP) experience, I supported the LEAF program by teaching third-graders about environmental stewardship, habitats, soils, and landforms. I had the unique opportunity to help children understand, appreciate, and care for their local community and I contributed to the conservation of America’s national parks. My job consisted in guiding students through a nature walk and a science lab.

During the nature walk, the third-graders connected their five senses with the habitat, soils, and landforms. While in the flume room, the third grades practiced being a scientist by conducting experience that shows how water behaves in different soil and the effect of pollution on river streams and soils.

They also learned dances that helped them remember weathering, erosion, and deposition.

Many of the students were minorities living at or near the poverty line in nearby Columbia, the state capitol. Some of them had never been in a natural space where they could not at least see a building or human construction.

Unlike many of the third-graders that participate in the LEAF program, I grew up listening to the trill of birds, feeling the rush of the wind at the top of a mountain, and enjoying the serenity of nature.


As the daughter of a working class immigrant and single mother here in Texas, I didn’t have the means to visit National Park. However, my family sought opportunities to experience the beauty of the wilderness. Through my childhood, I climbed, several times, El Cerro del Borrego in Orizaba Veracruz and the Franklin Mountains in El Paso Texas.

I visited the Piedras Encimadas Valley in Puebla and the countryside of Oaxaca, Mexico. My childhood interaction with naturally shaped a passion that led me to obtain a master degree in geophysics here at UTEP.

My upbringing also made me aware of how exposure and culture can influence the way we experience and care for nature. Eager to help address environmental issues, I also obtained a master degree in rhetoric from UTEP to help understand how people relate to the environment.

Soon after starting the LEAF program, I became aware of the serious disconnect that many third-graders have with nature. To improve the participants’ connection with their natural environment, I followed Dr. Shelley’s coaching, and I began to help the children make emotional and intellectual connections with the amazing old growth bottomland hardwood forest.


On one occasion, I saw a group of students peeling the bark of a tree while they were waiting for their classmates to come out of the restroom.

I approached them, and I explained that the tree couldn’t scream or say something, but the tree is alive, and their behavior could hurt it.

One of the students asked, “If we put it back would the tree feel better?” I said, “maybe…” The kids began putting back the pieces of bark. Then, one student hugged the tree, and the other students followed. I feel proud of the connections that I developed with the third-graders.

I was also able to make connections to my way of life and my heritage, even though I was 1,644 miles from my home in El Paso. I was pleasantly surprised to meet third-graders that share my bilingualism and Latino culture. I particular felt connected to a boy named José.

Soon after his class stepped out of the bus, his classmates asked me if I could speak Spanish. I responded, “Yes, of course.”

The children pointed to José immediately. During lunchtime, I chatted with him in Spanish, and I found out that his parents came from Mexico and Navidad is his favorite holiday. Talking to José remained me about the experience of being part of an immigrant family and my struggle to maintain my bilingualism and Mexican-American culture growing up.

The community, the people, the culture, and the children that I worked with impacted my perspective in a meaningfully way. My interaction with these third-graders brought me a great sense of accomplishment.

They instilled in me an eagerness to explore, to find new ways to perceive nature, to embrace new ideas, and to help others unconditionally. Even more, my work has inspired me to continue helping a new generation connect with Earth’s natural environments and become caretakers of their natural environment.

I also learned about science communication and education. My mentor, Dr. David Shelley, taught me to understand and apply essential strategies that are important when teaching. We talked about three important theories, including Piaget, Vygotsky, and Bloom. I learned many concepts that I didn’t know before.


I have formed inspiring friendships and memories. I became close with my roommates. I joined two of them—who were researchers—in exciting excursions to search for bats. I traveled to nearby towns, survived two hurricanes, and met many amazing volunteers and park rangers while participating in the park’s programs.

At the end of my service, park rangers and volunteers came to say goodbye.

The day before I left the park, Leona, a park ranger, gave me a set of earrings and a Christmas ornament to help me remember the Congaree’s champion trees and my time in the park. I also received a book with many photos from Congaree and signed by park rangers, interns, and the staff.

The kindness of these reactions deepened my respect for teaching and community engagement. Their gifts will always remind me of the positive impact that geoscientists can have in underserved communities.

My AmeriCorps position at Congaree National Park has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and career. My experience participating in AmeriCorps program allow me to both understand and familiarize myself with the difficulties faced by other communities in the United Sates.

I believe that AmeriCorps represents the goodwill of the United Sates. We are a nation of people from different religions, ethnicities, backgrounds, and education levels that works hard to help others and to meet critical needs in underserved communities.

In the future, I will use the knowledge that I learned in my My AmeriCorps position to continue striving to build our understanding of the natural world and encourage the next generation to become stewards of the Earth.

Author: Claudia Santiago – Special to the Herald-Post