Alonso Ponce was like just about every kid after a long day of school—as soon as he dropped his backpack, it was straight to the television. Cartoons were his favorite until his parents suggested a different program: Animal Planet. Like many adventurous and wildlife-obsessed kids, Ponce idolized Steve Irwin. But while his peers marveled at the Crocodile Hunter’s willingness to jump in a swamp filled with alligators, Ponce admired Irwin’s ability to educate.
Ponce loved learning. Unlike many of his classmates, English was his second language. And unlike most of his classmates, Ponce lived in a different country. He grew up in Tamaulipas, Mexico but went to school just across the border in Brownsville, Texas. Since Spanish is his native language, Ponce practically taught himself English by poring over books at the library and constantly watching nature shows on TV.
“In school you have the kids that like sports or the kids that like reading,” says Ponce. “I had to be the latter. Though I knew how to read English, I couldn’t actually process the information. I gravitated to animal books because they were filled with pictures. And little by little, I began to learn small words, big words, and even fancy scientific words.”
As Ponce grew older these passions—in wildlife and education—turned into volunteer, leadership, and working opportunities. As a high school student, Ponce led cultural and learning activities at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Matamoros in Tamaulipas and educated young students, families, and tourists about animals at Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville. These activities, which started off as required community service for his high school, turned out to be the first inklings of an interest in the environmental field.
Ponce’s success in the classroom and commitment to volunteering led to a nomination and invitation from his school’s administrators to attend the Washington Youth Summit on the Environment, where he met with Texas representatives and participated in a Q&A session with environmental activist and author, Ralph Nader. Now, as a sophomore in college at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley, Ponce looks back to these experiences as the main motivations for his environmental sciences concentration.
Ponce says that through his work at Audubon, he will be able to take his knowledge of difficult concepts and help elementary school students understand them the same way Animal Planet helped him when he was younger. That work will be part of Audubon’s partnership with the Walton Family Foundation to expand the ever-growing Audubon on Campus network and invest in the next generation of conservation leaders. To better understand Audubon’s education work, Ponce’s internship will focus on creating new editions of Audubon Adventures, Audubon's environmental education curriculum, that focus on bird-friendly practices, bird migration, and the federally threatened species Florida Scrub Jay.
As he starts his four-month program at Audubon, Ponce says he is excited to continue building towards his ultimate goal of becoming an environmental lawyer. And part of the development towards this profession is remembering how everything is connected.
“I feel like I have a duty to educate people whenever I can about the environment. If we truly want to save it, more people need to understand how everything is connected: humans to animals, animals to plants, plants to rocks, rocks to the atmosphere. If you take one part of it away, it basically messes the entire thing up,” says Ponce. “I applied to Audubon thinking, ‘I talk about the environment every day.’ And even though I am a ‘reptile guy,’ I grew up surrounded by birds. There's just something about them that speaks to me and always intrigues me. Hopefully I’ll be the ‘bird guy’ by the end of this.”