ITE Youth Spotlight: Julia Ortiz-Tzul

Julia’s journey with ITE began with a flier that “wouldn’t leave her alone.” After hearing about ITE from her teacher at City High and seeing fliers everywhere she turned in the school for an internship called Youth Ambassadors for Southwest Cultures (YASWC), she decided she ought to give it a shot. Julia went through an interview process and was selected for the program.

Since Julia didn’t have many opportunities to get outdoors in an intentional way, YASWC provided her with an introduction to experiences in nature as a teen. Julia said these experiences caused her to fall in love with Tucson and open her eyes to the cultures that exist in this region, especially with the help from Angel, a former ITE Program Manager, who made programs exciting and interesting.

While on the YASWC week-long backpacking expedition with the rest of her cohort, things were unexpectedly cut short when the National Park Service closed access to their sites due to COVID-19. The Youth Ambassadors received news that they were to end the trip, and they returned to Tucson with uncertainty. The rest of their internship took place virtually.

Though participating virtually was certainly different, Julia persisted and remained involved with ITE through the WorldWildWeb. She was recruited to take on a leadership role and join the Youth Advisory Committee to have a say in ITE programs, especially while trying to make connecting outdoors safe during the pandemic.

Julia progressed through other ITE programs, such as the Desert Youth Heritage Project, Wilderness Warriors, and Youth Action Community. Along with two other youth leaders, she organized a bike ride along the Santa Cruz River and also joined the interpretation team during BEYOND along the Chuk-son Trail. Though she was nervous to take on this role, especially presenting in front of large groups of people, she was so proud of herself for doing it.

Being part of all these programs had many benefits. They made Tucson feel like home, gave her a group of friends that she continues to stay in contact with, and provided the opportunity to go camping and explore nature. She also said it helped her with public speaking, feeling comfortable talking to many different kinds of people, and being more confident to speak up and have productive conversations where multiple points of view can be considered.

Not only did she gain these skills and friendships, but she also gained the confidence to spread her wings, connect with other opportunities, and share her voice in other ways. Influenced by her participation in the Desert Youth Heritage Project, Julia helped with recording radio stories at her high school, and, along with a classmate, won an award of “Superior” in the Commentary category from AIPA – The Best of Arizona Student Journalism and “runner up” in the third annual New York Times Student Podcast Contest. She also received Honors in her class for creating a presentation and leading her class on a trip to El Tiradito shrine (also inspired by her experiences in the Desert Youth Heritage Project).

After meeting a foreign exchange student from France through Wilderness Warriors and interacting with Angel, who had also talked about his traveling experiences, Julia was inspired to go abroad herself. She is currently receiving credit to finish her final year of high school in France, an experience she says has been humbling. Julia equated her struggles in adjusting to a new culture and language to the struggles of adjusting to cold temperatures while camping and long, tiring hikes with ITE. They both started off with great difficulty, making her unsure if she could make it through and wondering why she signed up to do such a thing – but in the end, she proved to herself that “It’s good to struggle… just because it’s hard doesn’t mean I can’t do it.”

Julia says these experiences have shown that she can get through difficult times, and if she can do it once, she can do it again. After learning “grounding” through ITE programs and learning to thank the earth for what it has to offer, she’s learned to direct that towards herself, “Now I do that, I say thank you to myself for getting through this.”

When Julia arrived in France, she shared pictures of birds, mushrooms, and the berries she saw growing everywhere. Before being part of ITE programs, she said she didn’t care about noticing these things as much, but now she can notice them everywhere.

In the near future, Julia’s goals are to finish her final year of high school in France and graduate. She wants to go to college at George Washington University or Georgetown to study Political Science, Philosophy, and International Relations. Eventually, she’d like to go to Law School. After seeing her mom and aunt go through the strenuous process of applying for citizenship and permanent residency, going to the court, and seeing court cases, Julia wants to get involved in immigration law.

Developing skills and growing an appreciation for her home in Tucson taught Julia how to appreciate a new place. From a Southwest Cultures Youth Ambassador to a world traveler, Julia has become ambitious and learned to share her story and her voice.