19 Jun ALUMNI PROFILE | Ryan Ueunten
Ryan Ueunten can’t help but feel a little cliché when he says this, but, he says, it’s the best way he can explain the experience he had when he moved to the Mainland after high school: “You know that feeling where you don’t really appreciate something until it’s gone? That’s what it was.”
Born and raised in Kalihi Valley, Ueunten went off to college at University of Denver after graduating from University Laboratory School. But he quickly found that he missed Hawai‘i — more so, he missed the connection that he’d begun to forge with the land. In high school, he’d taken an elective called Project Pono that focused on sustainability and environmental stewardship — the class entailed a variety of service projects such as restoring fish ponds and conducting beach cleanups — and his mind often drifted back to those days while he was in Denver.
“I really missed that,” he recalls. “In the back of my mind, I was thinking of (that class) and the experiences that I had. I thought, why did I leave?”
So Ueunten transferred to University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, where he majored in Global Environmental Science.
These days, Ueunten has found his passion as a field staff member at Hikaʻalani, the nonprofit that oversees Ulupō Heiau in Kailua, where he currently is working on a redesign of the lo‘i, and routinely helps to maintain the site and hosts school groups to educate keiki about the importance of the area.
He credits his time with Kupu to helping him get there.
Ueunten first joined Kupu as a Hawai‘i Youth Conservation Corps – Summer team leader in 2015 while at UH. He found that he not only enjoyed working with the environment, but he also loved the teamwork that the position entailed, and learning about the different sites they visited.
Later, when he was trying to decide what to do after college, returning to Kupu seemed like a good option. Ueunten was accepted into the year-long Conservation Leadership Development Program in 2016, and was placed with the Natural Area Reserves Systems, which is run by Department of Land and Natural Resources – Department of Forestry and Wildlife.
He loved that he got to spend his work days out in the field or camping high in the mountains in some of the island’s most beautiful locales.
“You get to work at places like Ka‘ena Point, Mount Ka‘ala, and in the Northern Ko‘olaus,” Ueunten recalls. “Working up in the forest was something that I really enjoyed, and the work was very varied. It never got boring because every day we were doing something different at a different place.”
But more than being able to enjoy beautiful views, Ueunten truly relished working with NARS to manage the native ecosystem.
“You see these plants and you see these animals that are pretty rare to find,” he says. “I saw rare snails, and rare plants where there are like 20 left in the wild. I would have never see them on my own, but through work I would — and not only see them, but help protect them, too.”
Having this experience, Ueunten says, “was a perfect first step” into a career in conservation. He acquired a number of practical skills, such as operating field machinery, identifying plants, administering wilderness first aid, and hosting school groups — all of which are integral parts of his current job.
“The skills that I learned transferred over to what I do now,” he says.
“It definitely gave me confidence in terms of going out and completing a mission,” he says. “Say we need to clear trail for a certain amount of miles, I know exactly what to do.”
Plus, Ueunten points out, because the program connects members with various leaders in green jobs, it’s a great way to put feelers out for future opportunities. In addition to working at Ulupō Heiau, Ueunten also still works with NARS about once a week.
He says that he would recommend the Conservation Leadership Development Program to anyone who is considering a career in conservation.
“It’s a great learning experience, a hands-on learning experience. It’s like they say, through working, you learn — and it’s so true.”
The Conservation Leadership Development Program currently is accepting applications for 2018-2019. Applications are due June 30. For more information and to apply, visit kupuhawaii.org/conservation.