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Education and Immersion

By Riley Cronin
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In March of 2023, I found myself on the side of an Andean mountain in Otonga, Ecuador. The cloud forest was so thick above me that I could barely see without my flashlight, which was frightening since we had just been briefed on the deadly insects and snakes that posed a threat to our night hike. We were told to keep quiet as we followed the hike leader, a local biologist studying the mountains’ biodiversity. He was in front of us, wielding a machete, making the way on a trail. Despite the fact we had just hiked here a few hours earlier, the path was already overgrown by twisted vines, reaching out for space to grow in the dense forest – its unique way of telling us that we did not belong. Rain splashed on the hood of my jacket with a constant rhythm, my personal contribution to the roaring sounds of the jungle around me. My heart raced, and I found myself asking, “what am I doing here?”

This is an extreme example of a time I found myself in an unfamiliar place, questioning my sense of belonging. It is also a moment where I reminded myself of my core belief that the best way to effectively engage with and support a community is through education and immersion. With that in mind, I pushed deeper into the forest.

Much like that day in the jungle, I have been in many situations where I do not necessarily belong. But just as the biologists immersed themselves in the jungle to educate themselves on its lifelines, hoping to live in partnership with it and create a new community where both exist, I, too, immerse myself in and educate myself on the places I want to engage with. These experiences have taught me the value of actively seeking out ways to be involved in new communities and cultures, which ultimately led me to El Pomar Foundation.

While I do not yet belong to the state of Colorado, having never lived here before, I am ready to immerse myself in the city of Colorado Springs and the High Country region, which I support through our Regional Partnerships program, to wholeheartedly educate myself on the social and geographical landscape of this state. As I settle into my new role as a 1st Year Fellow, I realize that whether it be for a week in Ecuador or a two-year Fellowship experience, I am always excited to embark on a new adventure. I am grateful that Colorado is the place I get to learn about and serve next.

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