Maya Boone and her fellow students cried in awe as another student gently shook the guayacan tree and precious seeds rained down on them. Joyfully, desperately, they held out their hands, hats, and buckets to collect as many of the endangered tree's seeds as they could. It was a highlight of Maya's trip to Ecuador through Global Student Embassy (GSE), and one she's likely to remember forever. "It was an exhilarating, empowering experience for all of us," she said. The experience with the guayacan tree was just one that has has shaped Maya's life. Founded in 2008 by brothers Lucas and Jasper Oshun, GSE brings students from different communities together to learn about the issues affecting their world. Students have the opportunity to travel to other countries, connect with their peers, and work together to address issues like food access and environmental degradation. It's hands-on learning that gives young people new perspectives and prepares them to be lifelong leaders and environmental stewards. Maya's journey with GSE started in high school. Growing up in Sebastopol, Cal., a small community in Sonoma County, she always had a love of the outdoors. As the daughter of an organic farmer, she also loved and appreciated gardening and environmental stewardship, and was intrigued by the process of growing food. But she didn't have a way of exploring these interests beyond her home life. The thought of pursuing a career that matched these interests didn't occur to her. "Growing up in Sonoma County, an area that values nature and the outdoors, I never envisioned a career in which I could incorporate those values," said Maya. "I didn't think you could do anything more with the land other than being a farmer." When Maya started high school, GSE had a display at the school's club fair. It piqued her interest, so she joined, and immediately new doors opened for her. Her experiences started with working in a community garden in downtown Sebastapol. "It was a big half-acre garden," she said. "It was fun to work there and to create relationships with the people that lived nearby, whom the garden served." A key component of the GSE experience is traveling to other countries and meeting other young people who are concerned about the same issues. Maya's first trip with GSE took her to Nicaragua for ten days, where she worked on sustainable agriculture projects. "I was really inspired," she said. "Building gardens in California was great, but in Nicaragua our work had a bigger impact." Upon returning from that trip, Maya's role with GSE grew, and she became an intern for the development manager. She was responsible for managing local gardens and recruiting students to join the program, and she took additional trips to Nicaragua and Ecuador. The experience has opened Maya's eyes to new career possibilities, and she is now a freshman at the University of California at Berkeley, studying environmental conservation and natural resource management. Her goal is to help educate others on issues of climate change, food systems, and forestry, implementing solutions on a large scale and influencing environmental policy decisions. While her experience with GSE has put her on a career path, it has also benefitted her in other ways she didn't expect. Because GSE projects are completely run by students, her experience also gave her leadership skills. "It gave me courage," she said, "to step out of my comfort zone to speak about things I thought were important." As exemplified by the guayacan tree experience, GSE also provided Maya with the opportunity, at a young age, to make a difference. "For a group of teenagers to participate in bringing back a species on the brink of extinction," she recalled. "It was something bigger than any of us imagined accomplishing."
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