Introducing Difference Maker Mentor : Aalyah Contreras

October 2, 2023

Hello everyone! My name is Aalyah Contreras and I am happy to be a part of UCONN’s NRCA program for the year 2023-2024 as a Difference Mentor Maker (DMM). 

      I am a first generation student and a senior majoring in Human Development and Family Sciences (HDFS), my academic path has been both challenging and rewarding.  Something that helped me get through these 4 years is yoga. I started doing yoga at college and it has been a great help in de-stressing my body and mind. 

      I am originally from Hartford, CT. At home, I have 2 yorkie’s Luna &Caiman and a cockatoo named Bella. When I’m not working or studying, I love to go out and try new things, especially dishes. Recently, driving up to New York has been one of my favorite things to do with family or friends. I love to be out and discover new things. So for a change I wanted to go out and try something new outside of the city.

      Becoming a Difference Mentor Maker was a decision I took to come out of my comfort zone. Usually I stay within my comfort zone so I wanted to shift my focus outward and engage with the world around me in a more hands-on and impactful way. Being part of NRCA’s Program gives me the opportunity to be a part of something meaningful. It’s a chance to contribute to my community, make connections, and make a positive difference in the lives of others.

      Being a Difference Mentor Maker, I am able to mentor and guide young individuals who are very passionate about helping the environment. I was able to collaborate with high school students from all over CT in a natural resource program that provides an opportunity to educate the next generation about environmental issues, sustainability and conservation.

Introducing Difference Maker Mentor: Adriana Garcia

September 22, 2023

Introducing Difference Maker Mentor: Adriana Garcia

Hey there! 


My name is Adriana and I’m one of 5 DMMs (Difference Maker Mentors) for the 2023-2024 NRCA program. I’m a Junior at the University of Connecticut majoring in Cognitive Science but with many interests in other fields like Developmental Psychology, Linguistics, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Natural Resources and the Environment, to name a few. Although my goal is to become a psychologist, I also want to delve into nature by possibly building a farm or nature space where I could grow food, raise animals like chickens, goats, and bunnies; and have a pollinator garden where I could experience butterflies around all the time. Something I would like to study and possibly specialize in is the connection between psychology and exposure to nature.


If you want to know who I really am, besides a jokester, it’s important to know that I enjoy learning about different unrelated topics because I value the privilege of being able to experience so much despite growing up in a low income household. I remember having mentors as a child that influenced me more than they probably think they did and I want to be able to pass that on to other children of all ages and be a role model they can count on. In a way, my mentors inspired me to become a mentor. This, coupled with my interest in nature and the environment is what inspired me to become a DMM.


From this role and the experiences it comes with, I hope to learn even more about myself and what I want to do with my studies and my life. Most importantly, I hope to make a real difference in the lives of the students I get to work with. I am also excited to continue networking with professionals/professors/mentors, as well as friends that I’ve made along the way. I appreciate the community that this role has introduced me to-which is abundant in positivity, environmentalists, and people who have found their purpose and calling who wish to share that with the world. 


So far, I’ve been developing my professionalism and my leadership skills. During the field experience, I realized that in order for others to participate and explore new experiences, it’s important that you guide the way for them to. This resulted in me trying so many new things like flying and landing a drone, getting into the Fenton river wearing a wader all while trying not to fall in, Dr. Jason Vokoun clipping a crawfish on my lanyard, holding a worm, learning about indigenous smudging, and getting stung by a yellowjacket, for the first time on our hike through the UConn forest, although unlike everything else, that was unexpected.


Becoming a DMM has benefited me greatly, and I can’t wait to continue growing in this role and taking what I’ve learned about leadership, culturally relevant, responsive, and trauma-informed approaches, and using this knowledge in future roles. 

NRCA’s Conservation Ambassador Program (CAP) and NRCA’s Difference Maker Mentors (DMM) program are currently supported by a generous 5-year donation from the original private family foundation and from a grant (WAMS-2021-38503-34817) from the USDA Women & Minorities in STEM Fields.

Introducing Difference Maker Mentor : Alexandra Blas

September 21, 2023

Hello, my name is Alexandra Blas, and I’m thrilled to introduce myself as one of the Difference Maker Mentors for the 2023 – 2024 academic year. I am a senior at the University of Connecticut, majoring in Allied Health Sciences with a minor in psychology. My academic interests center around genetics and genomics, particularly how environmental exposures can impact our DNA and the potential consequences, including diseases like cancer. The fusion of healthcare and scientific exploration is my passion, and I’m hopeful to learn more about our understanding of these intricate connections.

I am originally from Stamford, Connecticut, but I have moved over 15 times! Which has taught me how to adapt to new environments. In my freetime, you can find me in the company of my four-legged, hairy, german shepherd children, Milo and Canelito. Their playful antics always allow me to take a break from school and remind me how to enjoy the simple things in life. I enjoy teaching them new tricks. Milo is trained in providing anxiety relief by doing deep pressure therapy. I also enjoy creating new dishes, and testing out different ingredients. I love decorating pastries and even created dog friendly pastries so that my dogs can enjoy them as well. Art, in fact, has always held a special place in my heart. When I was younger, I began exploring various creative outlets, including pottery, drawing, painting, and crafting my own jewelry. This artistic inclination continues to influence my life, allowing me to see the world through a different lens. It has become a way to release any feelings I may have, and allows me to take a break from things going on around me.

Becoming a Difference Maker Mentor was a conscious choice to explore a different field and reconnect with my love for the outdoors. This program has not only allowed me to connect with nature again but has also opened my eyes to the vast
unexpected learning opportunities. Collaborating with individuals from diverse backgrounds, gaining insight into their work, and uncovering the behind-the-scenes processes have been some of the most enjoyable parts of this experience. My goal as a mentor is to expand my knowledge in this field and support my mentees in their unique journeys. I aim to assist them in discovering their passions and guide them in creating projects that can leave a lasting impact for years to come. I look forward to this exciting journey ahead and the opportunity to help my mentees bring their project to life.


Introducing Difference Maker Mentor: Andy Zhang

September 20, 2023

Hello! My name is Andy Zhang and I am a sophomore at the University of Connecticut where I serve as a NRCA Difference Maker Mentor for the 2023-2024 cohort . 


As a dedicated student, I am pursuing degrees in environmental science as well as economics with the aim of developing a well-rounded perspective on how we can create sustainable solutions that integrate ecological preservation with economic prosperity. It is this aspiration that has driven me to become a Difference Maker Mentor among other things. 


Being a mentor in this program has allowed me to connect with a group of students who share a deep passion for the environment. The prospect of guiding and empowering them throughout the upcoming year fills me with immense excitement. The experience of collaborating with like-minded peers, all fueled by the ambition to make a positive impact on the world, makes me hopeful for the future of our planet. 


Beyond my position as a Difference Maker Mentor, I’m also actively involved in various other UConn organizations and clubs. The Office of Sustainability has been a platform where I contribute as an intern, empowering me to become a champion for sustainability. In addition, I’m a proud student ambassador for the College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources. These involvements not only enhance my own growth but also enable me to actively contribute to the university community.


When I’m not busy with my academic pursuits and extracurricular activities, you can find me engaged in a variety of hobbies. I have a long-standing love for reading books and I’m always working on improving my foreign language skills. Of course, I also indulge in the occasional Netflix binge-watching session to unwind and relax. Staying active and healthy is something else I try to keep in mind and I accomplish this by either using our state-of-the-art recreation center for weight lifting or running around the local Storrs area.


My UConn life has been a dynamic blend of academics, personal growth, and leisure, and I’m excited to continue embracing all that it has to offer. As I step into this role of Difference Maker Mentor at the NRCA and continue my journey at UConn, I’m eager to make a positive impact, learn from my experiences, and collaborate with others who share my vision for a sustainable and vibrant future.


NRCA’s Conservation Ambassador Program (CAP) and NRCA’s Difference Maker Mentors (DMM) program are currently supported by a generous 5-year donation from the original private family foundation and from a grant (WAMS-2021-38503-34817) from the USDA Women & Minorities in STEM Fields.

Introducing Difference Maker Mentor: Paige Booth

September 18, 2023

Hello Everyone! My name is Paige Booth and I am a junior at the University of Connecticut studying environmental science with a concentration in sustainable systems and a minor in ecology and evolutionary biology. I am lucky enough to serve as one of the Difference Maker Mentors for the 2023-2024 school year. On campus, I am also the treasurer of my acapella group Rubyfruit, a member of the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega, and a CAHNR ambassador. In my free time, you will most likely find me at a concert (I’ve been to 12 this year)! I also enjoy going on nature walks, binge-watching new shows on Netflix, and petting any and every cat I can.


I have recently discovered my passion for mentoring youth. I was a first-year experience mentor last fall and I am also a husky ambassador. Sharing what I am passionate about with the next generation of learners has truly transformed me. These mentoring positions have pushed me out of my comfort zone and taught me things I couldn’t have learned anywhere else. Whenever someone asks me what a DMM is and what it entails, I have the privilege of explaining it to them. I’m able to work closely with these incredibly driven high schoolers and help them develop a project that will improve the quality of their community. I am not sure exactly what I want to do after receiving my undergraduate degree, but I do know that I want to continue to work for organizations such as the NRCA and mentor youth. The future truly is up to them.


I’ll end with my environmental motto: “Put the joy into saving the environment”. That is exactly what the NRCA and these students are doing. I feel as though the current status of the environment brings fear and anger into the hearts of many. While these feelings are valid and needed, I also believe we need to enjoy what nature provides for us while helping it at the same time. During the field experience week it was lovely to see the students outside enjoying the many riches nature has to offer.


NRCA’s Difference Maker Mentors (DMM) program are currently supported by a generous 5-year donation from the original private family foundation and from a grant (WAMS-2021-38503-34817) from the USDA Women & Minorities in STEM Fields.

Introducing Graduate Mentor: Christopher Cane

November 29, 2022

Hello! My name is Christopher Cane, and I am a graduate student mentor and research assistant with the NRCA Conservation Ambassador Program and NRCA Difference Mentor Maker Program. I’m currently a master’s student studying Human Dimensions of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Connecticut. As an undergraduate student, I double majored in environmental anthropology and studio art at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. 

While at Umass, I had the privilege of collaboratively planning a service learning trip to Plenitud ecological farm in Las Marias, Puerto Rico, where I traveled with other students to volunteer by harvesting and making anti-inflammatory turmeric salves to bring to local elders to relieve arthritis, among other things. I worked at the university Visual Resources Archive to digitize and archive the ethno-botany photo collections of the late Dr. Lawrence and Lucy Kaplan from Chiapas and Oaxaca, Mexico, and I was fortunate to meet Dr. Kaplan before he passed away in 2018. I still quote botany facts that I learned from him in my environmental education lessons. Participating in a year-long honors capstone course in International Epidemiology was also integral to the formation of my worldview. The course included a winter semester case study in Cape Town, South Africa, where we met with local community leaders to witness the impacts of apartheid, as well as the resistance movements that we had been learning about.  


After completing my bachelors degrees, I served as a FoodCorps service member with Green Village Initiative in Bridgeport, Connecticut for two years. While with Green Village Initiative, I coordinated a school garden advisory committee of public school teachers, public health researchers, a local chef, non-profit leaders, and district subject area leads. During the first year, I worked with 125 6th grade students, the Cesar Batalla School community, Green Village Initiative, and Home Depot to redesign and rebuild their school garden. During my second year, I committed much of my time with several key teachers to build capacity and investment in caring for the garden and utilizing it as an outdoor learning space. For the last three years I have had the pleasure of working as an environmental educator for Common Ground High School and New Haven Ecology Project. It was distinctly special opportunity to learn outdoors in West Rock State Park with students aged six to eighteen.


In my free time, I have an endless list of hobbies to keep me busy. I’m currently building a bookshelf from the salvaged wood of an Eastern black walnut tree that was felled in my home-town of Westbrook, CT. I enjoy gardening, fermenting kombucha and cider, and cultivating edible mushrooms. I like to cook for my five housemates, sit around a fire with friends and family, and go on hikes and adventures with my partner. 

As a research assistant with the NRCA, I am interested in social and ecological relationships, with concern in particular for collective decision-making about the environment and natural resources. I’m curious what factors lead to sustained community environmental stewardship. I believe that we’ll be able to learn more about this by better understanding the ways people collaborate to carry out environmental action projects with the NRCA Conservation Ambassador Program.


NRCA’s Conservation Ambassador Program (CAP) and NRCA’s Difference Maker Mentors (DMM) program are currently supported by a generous 5-year donation from the original private family foundation and from a grant (WAMS-2021-38503-34817) from the USDA Women & Minorities in STEM Fields.

Introducing Difference Maker Mentor: Leah Gichuru

September 20, 2022

Hello, my name is Leah Gichuru, and one of the Difference Maker Mentors for the year 2022-2023. I am currently studying molecular and cell biology, and minoring in Spanish at the University of Connecticut.

As a first-generation American student, I am the first in my family to be attending a four-year college and focus much of my free time mentoring other students who are also part of the underrepresented community. When I’m indoors, I like to spend my free time baking and cooking for my friends and family. All I need to do is watch an episode of Master Chef Junior, and a few other cooking competitions on Food Network, then I have all the motivation I need to get started.


I am a member of the diabetes network, travel model united nations, and leading women of tomorrow clubs on campus.


It was commonly asked how I came to be interested in being a Difference Maker Mentor, but I believe that my interest peaked very organically. Although this job doesn’t keep me in a lab, it is very immersive and allows me to mentor students and give them an opportunity that I was never provided while I was in high school. In my own experience, I didn’t realize the passion I had for biological sciences until I joined a program that provided me the opportunity to explore career choices in my interested area of study. Without it, I don’t know whether I would have chosen to still take the same route.


The environmental motto that I like to adhere to, is “leave the world a better place for the ones coming after us”.


I believe that we as humans were provided with certain resources to sustain ourselves and raise the next generation. So it is our obligation to do the same and cultivate a world we want to live in and preserve the resources that are limited. Wangari Maathai, a famous environmental and political activist once said, “It’s the little things citizens do. That’s what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees.” Truly we must all work to create sustainability.


NRCA’s Difference Maker Mentors (DMM) program are currently supported by a generous 5-year donation from the original private family foundation and from a grant (WAMS-2021-38503-34817) from the USDA Women & Minorities in STEM Fields.


Introducing Difference Maker Mentor: Sydney Seldon

September 14, 2022

Hello everyone! 


My name is Sydney Seldon, and I’m a sophomore at UConn. I am pursuing a degree in Environmental Science and plan to double major in Environmental Policy as an individualized major. Avenues prioritizing collective action and community engagement have guided the opportunities I seek, and my role as a Difference Maker Mentor for the NRCA is no exception! 


As the name suggests, being a DMM has provided me invaluable experience working with students as we aim to make a genuine difference in their communities. I’ve learned so much and am thrilled to continue with the NRCA and this nature of work for the rest of my life.


If I were to have a “Mission Statement,” it would be that we all have the opportunity to make a difference in the environments we occupy regardless of the many worldly injustices present or our own individual weaknesses. That’s the beauty of collective action! Despite how weak or inadequate each of us may feel individually or how oppressed we may be, when we create spaces for engaging conversations, nurture those relationships, and collaborate to advance towards a shared goal, genuine change (for the better) is possible and inevitable! Regardless of the corruption that exists in the world, I plan to utilize every ounce of the privilege I have to make the world a better place for my current and future co-inhabitants.


This internal compass has guided me to become involved in various opportunities with different clubs and organizations that UConn provides, including (but not limited to) going on a mission trip to install water filters in Costa Rica, studying abroad in Italy, and most recently becoming an intern at the Office of Sustainability. 


When I’m not in class or the office, you’ll often find me relaxing or hiking outside, working out in the Recreation Center, or reading spiritual text. I enjoy volunteering, thrift shopping, and playing the ukulele in my free time. I also have a minor obsession with kombucha, sweet potato fries, and Ben & Jerry’s strawberry cheesecake ice cream.


I’ll end this post with my favorite quote. I hope these words not only inspire you, as they have me but prompt you to truly become the change you want to see. 


We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.” -Gandhi.


NRCA’s Difference Maker Mentors (DMM) program are currently supported by a generous 5-year donation from the original private family foundation and from a grant (WAMS-2021-38503-34817) from the USDA Women & Minorities in STEM Fields.

Introducing Difference Maker Mentor: Erin McKeehan

September 2, 2022

Picture of Erin McKeehan from the waist up. Erin is smiling while wearing a solid black short sleeve sundress and tan tassel earrings. In the background, you can see part of a wall of a red barn sitting on top of a stone foundation.

Hey y’all! I’m Erin McKeehan and I will be serving as one of the NRCA Difference Maker Mentors for the 2022-2023 program. I am currently a senior at UConn studying Economics and Environmental Studies. While I plan on pursuing multiple pathways, I am particularly interested in circular economies and economic justice. I am radically optimistic in the belief that we as people already have the resources we need to achieve more suitable systems for human life (and by extension - our environment). The true obstacles then lie in education and connecting groups of people together to create and sustain such systems. Through the NRCA, I hope to contribute to and learn more about the community relationships required to achieve these goals. 


Picture of Erin McKeehan and Jonathan XIV, the husky canine mascot for UConn. Erin is sitting in the back of a gator utility car with the dog and smiling while the dog has his eyes closed happily with the wind in his fur.Also at UConn I am the president of the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega. We’re best known for being in charge of the care of the Jonathans since 1970, which has been an incredible way to experience and serve the larger university population. While lesser known, the bigger part of what APO does is create as well as engage in service projects in the greater Tolland/Hartford County areas. When not at UConn, you can likely find me trying out new beverage concoctions at various local coffee shops, eating Lizzie’s Curbside at the Coventry Farmers’ Market, hanging out with my cat Chester, or making my way through the entire NCIS cinematic universe.


All Picture of Erin McKeehan's cat, Chester. The picture shows the back of an orange cat sitting on a sofa cushion looking out the window into a front yard.this to say, the common thread underlying each of my interests is certainly grounded in building and participating in my communities. Sharing knowledge to co-create a better world with what we know now is a mission we can all take part in, and I am very excited to be a part of that this year with the Natural Resources Conservation Academy!


NRCA’s Difference Maker Mentors (DMM) program are currently supported by a generous 5-year donation from the original private family foundation and from a grant (WAMS-2021-38503-34817) from the USDA Women & Minorities in STEM Fields.

Introducing Difference Maker Mentor: Leilani Duarte

August 24, 2022

Hello, my name is Leilani Rose Duarte, and I am a 2022-23 NRCA Difference Maker Mentor (DMM).


I’m a senior at UConn majoring in Natural Resources (NRE) with a concentration in Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation and minor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB). I intend on entering graduate school after I graduate to further expand my knowledge and skill set related to wildlife conservation and management, which is also the field I hope to enter when I start my career. I am especially interested in conservation biology and working directly with animals, particularly felids. I’ve also always wanted to get involved in wildlife rehabilitation and rescue, and further on in my career I hope to be able to work with conservation organizations like the Wildlife Conservation Society.

As a NRCA DMM, I’m hoping that the experience will further inspire my interest in environmental science as well as help me broaden my own skills and experiences in community outreach and implementing community-based environmental projects. I’ve always had a strong interest in wildlife conservation, but I’m more familiar with the research side of it. The skills I hope to gain as a DMM include intergenerational communication and organizational skills, teaching skills, and managing community outreach projects.

In addition to being a DMM, I’m also currently working as a lab assistant for EEB PhD candidate Grace Vaziri with her study on the thermal preferences of wood frogs from different populations around Connecticut. Previously, I’ve worked with Liz Clifton, an EEB doctoral student on her termite warfare study and with Eliza Grames, a Post-doctoral Scholar now at the University of Nevada, on the EntoGEM project.

In my free time, I like to sketch, play video games, and spend time with my lovely cat Calypso. I also love to travel. In the past, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Vietnam, Canada, Mexico, China and Japan, and more recently I’ve traveled to South Africa as part of the UConn study abroad course African Field Ecology. During the CAP field experience I was super excited to share my experiences in South Africa in particular, since cheetah conservation would be something I’d love to get involved with career-wise.

As a part of NRCA, I’m looking forward to helping my mentees develop their environmental action projects as well as seeing what the final projects look like in 10 months time.


NRCA’s Difference Maker Mentors (DMM) program are currently supported by a generous 5-year donation from the original private family foundation and from a grant (WAMS-2021-38503-34817) from the USDA Women & Minorities in STEM Fields.