July 7, 2006

Saving the Earth, One Hispanic Student at a Time

By Marika Hoffmann and John Suval

Like many pioneers, Raul Valdez has learned to trust a reliable compass: his passion. The son of immigrants from Mexico, didn’t know a single person who had graduated from college, but his love of biology motivated him to pursue a higher education.

“I was intimidated when I went to college. I didn’t have mentors—Hispanic mentors. It was my passion that carried me through,” he says.

In 1970, the El Paso native became the first Hispanic in the United States to receive a Ph.D. in wildlife biology. Today Dr. Valdez heads the Department of Fishery and Wildlife Sciences at New Mexico State University. His passion currently lies in mentoring the Hispanic biologists of tomorrow. 

“I realized that I could make a difference by helping Hispanics attain positions in the natural resource conservation professions; that I could be a role model,” he explains.

With the Earth in the throes of what scientists have dubbed a “sixth mass extinction,” Hispanics will play an increasingly critical role in restoring the ecological health of the planet. Animal and plant species are dying out one thousand times faster than the historic rate, according to Harvard University biologist Edward O. Wilson and colleagues, who warn of the very real possibility of a future without lions, rhinos, most primates, many beloved species of birds and countless plants. In the tropics, especially, species are disappearing at an alarming rate largely as a result of deforestation.

Valdez would like to see more Hispanics at the forefront of efforts to save the planet’s biodiversity. In his own ground-breaking conservation work, Valdez has made an office out of the world’s most exotic locales, venturing to Mongolia and across the Middle East to study wild sheep, and leading efforts to restore jaguar populations throughout the Americas, among other projects. Yet he knows from first-hand experience that the nation’s largest minority group is vastly underrepresented in the wildlife professions and in university programs. In a study he conducted of undergraduates in the western United States, Valdez found that less than one percent of wildlife students who graduated from five universities in California and Texas were Hispanic.

“Because many Hispanics are not aware of opportunities in environmental professions, they are missing big opportunities. That’s a great shame,” he says.

Over the years, Valdez has taken numerous Latino biology students under his wing, some of whom have become leaders in the field and mentors in their own right.

“To Dr. Valdez, graduating was not the measure of success. It was seeing me through my graduate studies and career,” says Ana Muñoz, a doctoral student in wildlife sciences at Texas A&M University.

From a young age, Muñoz felt a strong affinity for nature. However, she had no idea how to turn her passion into a career. She opted instead to study chemical engineering at New Mexico State University, but was miserable. One day, in a stroke of good fortune, a professor suggested that she go meet with a highly-regarded wildlife biologist on campus named Raul Valdez. Little did Muñoz know when she met the dynamic fellow surrounded by enormous stacks of books that he would play such a crucial role in her life. Valdez convinced the unhappy undergraduate to listen to her heart and pursue a career in wildlife conservation, and would not rest until he saw her realize her full potential.

At Texas A&M, Muñoz has continued to feel her mentor’s presence as she hones her knowledge of habitat conservation for endangered species. One of her professors, Roel Lopez, shares Valdez’s sense of mission when it comes to mentoring young Latinos. An expert in urban ecosystems, Lopez attributes the dearth of Latinos in wildlife careers to longstanding misperceptions and a lack of knowledge about job opportunities. 

“When I first expressed an interest in going into wildlife, I was discouraged because it was viewed as a non-Latino field of work,” he recalls. He has since come to learn that the bilingual skills and bi-cultural perspective of many Hispanics are important assets, particularly to international conservation projects and initiatives along the border.

Valdez heartily agrees.

“There are great opportunities internationally and nationally. If you are interested in natural resource conservation, there are many well-paying careers available,” he says. “Follow your passion.”

That simple formula has served him—and those he has guided—exceedingly well.

This information was brought to you thanks to the support of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) & the U.S.D.A. Forest Service. 

Return to the Frontpage