Faces of West Valley | Cruz Turns Field of Dreams into Reality for Park Management Students

Chris Cruz

Chris Cruz is the real deal in every way possible. As the faculty lead for West Valley College’s Park Management program, he brings with him over 40 years of lived experience, hands-on knowledge, grassroots guidance, and a vast network people in the field to connect students to as they navigate the program and land jobs nationally and statewide. The college’s Park Management program is a foundational program that started in 1970 and continues to draw students from all walks and phases of life to pivot and see their world change for the better from the ground up. Cruz shares with us the path that led him to West Valley and the outdoor explorations that have inspired him to pay his love of our land forward.

My ties with the land and outdoor exploration began at a very young age. I grew up in Florida and remember a trip my parents took me and my brothers on. We went to Everglades National Park when I was six years old and it was one of my earliest memories of the outdoors. On this trip we took a boat tour from Flamingo at Everglades as we headed into Florida Bay, and I saw my first bald eagle in a nest on a mangrove tree. That really had an everlasting impact on me. So much so, that I have taken my family to see that same nest.

My grandparents on my mom’s side would take us fishing on their boat introducing us to what was later to become Biscayne National Park. They also took us on a six-week coast to coast and border to border trip when I was 15.  On this trip they told my brothers and me to pick three national parks to visit. We chose selected Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand Canyon, and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. We also visited a bunch of National Park Service (NPS) units on the east coast as well.

As a child, I also enjoyed being in the Boy Scouts where I did a lot of camping, hiking, and canoeing. And as I grew a little older, in junior high, I was on the speech and debate team where in my first competition speech I spoke about the Endangered Species Act and placed top-three in the competition.

All of this has led to an over 20-year career in the National Park Service, and I have been fortunate to have worked and lived in some of the most amazing places. I always get the question: which one is your favorite? But my question back is: How do you pick a favorite? I’ve served in the Everglades, Biscayne, Dry Tortugas, Desoto National Memorial, Grand Teton, Big Bend, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Haleakala, Lassen Volcanic, Lake Roosevelt NRA, Pinnacles, and Golden Gate NRA. Everglades and Biscayne are my home parks, Yosemite (met my wife JoAnne there), Lassen Volcanic and Haleakala are the parks my kids have grown up around. But if you pin me down to pick one, it is Grand Canyon. I call it my heart spot! I have hiked and rafted more miles in that park than any other!

From an educational standpoint, I had three teachers that were truly inspirational to leading me on my journey. They were Bill Burger (6th grade), William McCreary (9th grade biology) and Linda Scheridan (12th grade English). They were incredible at creating connections with students and truly preparing us for the world. Much of the way I teach now is a direct tribute to them. They were my example!

I went to Indiana University-Bloomington and got a Bachelor’s in Spanish Culture and Civilization and got my Master’s in Environmental Studies from Prescott College in Arizona. While working at Yosemite I was introduced to West Valley College by Kim Aufhauser who was a co-worker at Yosemite and later at West Valley College. I was able to come over and do guest presentations before I ever got hired. I have been fortunate to have been part of a 52-year legacy here in the Park Management Program and I share the leadership of that program with Heidi McFarland—newly tenured. Our founders Tom Smith and John Nicholas set the stage for us in 1970.

As an educator, I have been able to come full circle in many areas; I have had opportunities to work in leadership positions in two separate National Science Foundation funded projects: the National Geotech Center and iGETT Remote Sensing (Collaborations with NASA and USGS) and I developed our Geospatial Technology Program and teamed with Benjamin Mendelsohn in developing our Unmanned Aircraft Technology Program. On campus, I have had many responsibilities as a Department Chair, Guided Pathways Faculty Coordinator, and Curriculum Committee to name a few. I have dreamed my whole academic career of traveling internationally with my students and will have that opportunity this summer to Peru with Molly Schrey from the Biology Department. Diversity and Inclusion is very important to me as well, especially in our industry. This has brought me to serving on the Board of Directors of the San Jose Conservation Corps and Charter School.

In the end the most important part of my experience in academia is to provide those same experiences that were afforded to me by my teachers to my own students. Helping to show students that they have incredible opportunities and to create a meaningful experience going forward to take care of this planet we call earth. I am so proud of the work our students and alumni have done all over the country! I am most especially proud of the work my son Alejandro and daughter Alana are doing to carry on the traditions of great land stewardship! I hope that through them, they can pass the love I have for this earth to generations after me.

Last Updated 5/27/22