Ben Royer '10

Hometown: Knoxville, TN
Majors: Environmental Studies & Spanish
Senior Study Title: “The Hispanic/Latino Minority and Our National Parks: Encouraging Values of Ownership and Stewardship to Minority Classes”
Advisor: Dr. Susan Ambler

Thesis Abstract

Ben Royer has been venturing into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with his father since he was a small child, and he has been performing trail maintenance since he was old enough to carry a hand tool.

 As one might expect, he was honored and delighted to be among 2,000 guests and dignitaries who had the privilege to gather atop Newfound Gap in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Sept. 2, 2009 to celebrate the park’s 75th anniversary.

Royer couldn’t help noticing, however, that the group of attendees lacked ethnic diversity – and that lack of diversity was something he’d also noticed while hiking the trails over the years.

It was at that moment that Royer, then a senior trying to come up with a Senior Study topic, decided to dedicate his thesis to determining culturally-based explanations for low rates of visitation and participation in national parks by the Hispanic/Latino minority.

“I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to combine my majors,” said Royer, who was pursuing a double major in environmental studies and Spanish. Royer spent the second semester of his junior year abroad in Chile, where he further developed his love of the Spanish language and the Hispanic/Latino culture.

Royer said he decided to focus on the Hispanic/Latino minority because it is still a “very recently arrived minority,” which only became the largest minority group in the U.S. within the last 10 years.

Royer’s study focused on Hispanic/Latino involvement in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. He conducted personal interviews with local members of the Hispanic/Latino community to gain insight into their culture, as well as their opinions about national parks and their experiences within them.

From those interviews, Royer sought to determine whether there were any barriers – language, financial, cultural or personal – that may inhibit the Hispanic/Latino population from visiting national parks. As a result of the research, Royer hoped to draw conclusions on how to best involve the minority group in the national parks.

He found that socioeconomic resources, such as education, income, health care and transportation, were often limiting factors to visiting national parks.

Royer cited a study in which California Park Ranger Mauricio Escobar said that outdoor activities in national parks, such as hiking, backpacking and camping, are often viewed by many minorities as traditionally “white activities.”

“Some participants said it was the amount of time that they had available to spend doing free time activities, whereas the others stated that because they are not part of the predominant American culture, it might take time for them to assimilate into the American culture before they really try to embrace it,” Royer said.

In his research, Royer found that many in the Hispanic/Latino culture are not fully knowledgeable about the park system’s locations, activities and available experiences in park units.

Royer recommended a proactive bilingual education program, as well as a proactive education program that is focused both outside the park and inside the park, to help promote visitation to national parks, promote the values of ownership and stewardship and address cultural barriers to participation.

“It might be a little too early to tell whether this approach will work, because from all of my interviews, the one thing I really got from them is that this is still a very new minority,” Royer said.

Dr. Susan Ambler, associate professor of sociology and Royer’s advisor, thought Royer’s thesis was outstanding and recommended it for the library’s permanent collection.

“In not all theses do students collect original data,” Ambler said. “That’s one of the reasons I thought Ben’s thesis was outstanding. I also thought the subject matter was unusual and significant - the connection with the 75th anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and then the connection with the group that has become the largest minority in the country.”

Royer said the thesis stretched him in ways he’d never been stretched before.

“When I studied abroad, I got to experience one form of the Hispanic/Latino culture in another country,” he said. “When I was here conducting my research, I was really pulled into a whole other world. I got to meet their families. The interview was not ‘walk in, sit down, do the interview and then leave.’ It wasn’t just a professional interview - I was establishing a relationship with them. What I thought was my own culture and area … I was brought into a completely different one, which really helped me relate and then draw conclusions from them.”

Ambler said she was stretched, too.

“The fact that it was on the Hispanic/Latino minority was a stretch for me, because I haven’t had anyone study that group before,” Ambler said. “I think anytime someone does original data collection, it’s always a stretch.”

Royer, who graduated in May 2010, is currently hiking the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail – a longtime dream he is finally pursuing. He started in early July in Maine and hopes to finish hiking the trail in its entirety by November.

As a result of his thesis, Royer said he will be more aware of who is on the trail.

“I’m excited over the next few months to see,” he said. “I’m definitely going to be more interested in that, and it’s probably something I’ll be talking a bit with people that I meet along the way. I think a lot of my conclusions will hold up.”

When Royer finishes hiking the Appalachian Trail, he said he hopes to pursue a career with an organization like the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

“I’ve shared my thesis with officials at Elkmont (in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park) and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and they really liked it,” he said. “I’ve already used my thesis for a few different applications and have gotten really positive feedback. There are studies on this topic, but there are not a lot of qualitative studies like this, so I think not only the subject matter but the way I went about it stands out.”