Scholarship Supports Diversity, Career Development for Conservation Education

The Ernest Quintana and Marty Sterkel Education Scholarship was started in 2011 to encourage diversity in the workforce and invest in future stewards of the land. Since its creation, the program has grown to cultivate opportunities for diverse communities to pursue careers with great impact on our national parks and public lands. Scholarships are awarded for internships with the National Park Service (NPS), government agencies, and nonprofit heritage conservation organizations.

black and white photo of Ernie Quintana
Ernest Quintana (courtesy of NPS).

Quintana and Sterkel each contributed distinguished, decades-long careers to NPS. Quintana spent his 41-year career in a variety of positions across Saguaro National Park, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, and Joshua Tree National Park. Notably, he was also the first Hispanic regional director with NPS. Also devoting a lifetime to national parks, Sterkel dedicated more than three decades to park service. Both he and Quintana separately served as associate regional director of Partnerships for the Midwest Region of NPS as well as associate regional director for Natural Resources Stewardship, Science, and Partnerships.

The two friends shared a desire to bring more communities to national parks—they worked to advance young people into careers and improve park accessibility for diverse communities. Connecting to varied populations of high school and college students, Quintana and Sterkel introduced new generations to careers in conservation and park management with NPS. These outreach efforts educated communities with limited access to national parks and helped to foster interest in both visiting the parks and working with them.

Marty Sterkel (courtesy of Sandy Poole).

While connecting with students interested in conservation proved easy, they found that financial challenges often prevented students from finishing their education.

“It was very hit and miss,” Quintana recalls. “It felt like we would take two steps forward and one step back, but we kept trying. Marty wasn’t ready to give up. He was always saying there was something more that we could do.”

Quintana shared that, after their retirement from the national parks, the pair’s efforts only strengthened—in fact, they felt that they could do more in retirement, devising new ways to make parks and the workforce more inclusive of the perspectives that are so often marginalized. Shortly after they left the parks, Sterkel suggested they create a scholarship fund to help interns working for NPS stay the course through college and pursue careers in conservation. This suggestion would blossom into the program that exists today.

Ernest Quintana speaking about the importance of National Parks (courtesy of NPS).

When they created the scholarship in 2011, it had a slow start.

“It felt like we were stumbling in the dark, trying to navigate how to manage the program at first,” Quintana says.

When Western National Parks Association (WNPA) began hosting the program, Quintana says things really began to grow. With WNPA’s guidance, the fund caught the attention of both applicants and donors alike—the scholarship is now funded by additional private donations from generous individuals, and eligibility is open to a broader range of career opportunities.

After retirement, Quintana served on the WNPA board from 2013 to 2018. He continues to be passionate about improving conservation education for young people and creating equitable access to our nation’s most treasured places—our national parks. Sterkel, whom Quintana considered the driving force behind the program, passed away in April of 2022 in Grand Junction, Colorado.

“I see the positive impact this fund has on the lives of the young individuals receiving it,” Quintana says. “These students are dedicated to the pursuit of a career, and this program helps them be successful.”

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