Melanie Quiñones Santiago

Roles at NAAEE:

30 Under 30

M.S. Natural Resources Graduate Student
Cornell University

Naranjito, Puerto Rico, United States
Age: 25

Melanie leads efforts to increase access to environmental education through citizen science for local communities surrounding El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico.

How are you using education to build more sustainable and equitable communities? 

Through my research, I explore and seek to understand the socio-ecological conditions and community values that can lead to positive transformation towards sustainability. The research focuses on the Northeast region of Puerto Rico and will address needs associated with capacity building, environmental education, conservation of natural resources, and shared stewardship practices. Also, through the new citizen science program, “Redescubre El Yunque”, we are continually educating and providing opportunities to engage through workshops, training, and monitoring activities, where residents of the surrounding communities can be empowered and educated about the ecosystem services provided by their surroundings.

Tell us about your journey to where you are today. 

I have been connected to education, science, and nature since my early years in Puerto Rico, where I developed a profound understanding of the landscape that surrounded me, rooted in an appreciation of tropical ecosystems and the utilization of natural resources for farming, my family’s principal source of income. Since then, my research and management experiences have inspired me to become a professional in socio-ecological systems, especially through transdisciplinary approaches.

I can say my journey has been a little bumpy, but valuable. Having experienced hurricanes, earthquakes, pandemics, and living in Puerto Rico (where there’s a need to decolonize environmental governance to enable a sustainable future), I have understood that a positive attitude towards your goals is the key for success.

What advice would you give to the next generation of leaders?

Do not be afraid of raising your voice and standing up for what you believe in simply because you are younger than others in the room. People will value your opinion if it’s shared with respect. Also, our next generation of leaders will face a rapidly changing world that will require bold, dramatic, and extremely innovative ideas to protect the environment. Do not stop challenging the established system. Create what is best and most suitable for your generation. 

Who do you look up to as inspiration?

I look up to outstanding leaders who have been examples of honesty, respect, commitment to public good, and who are striving for a healthy relationship with the environment. Some examples include Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jacinda Ardern, Greta Thunberg, John Maxwell, and Peter Drucker, among others!

What are you happiest doing?

Dancing, learning photography, exploring the outdoors, helping communities, and taking naps are my happiest moments!