NOAA Youth Ambassadors Make Waves in 28 States

By Brian Chansky

March 2024

 A diverse group of youth in four photos. L to R: A young Hispanic student with a whale hat on her head; a young Asian boy holding a piece of sponge at the beach; an African American student giving two thumbs up; and a young Asian girl holding a sign that says: National Marine Sanctuaries - America’s Underwater Treasures. Enjoy and protect them.

Over the last year, several passionate young people, driven by a shared commitment to ocean conservation and stewardship, came together to make a difference. These are the first-ever NOAA Ocean Guardian Youth Ambassadors. The youth ambassador program is a new endeavor under the Ocean Guardian umbrella that marks an increased level of engagement for youth in the United States and its territories. In the first year, 250 students participated from 28 states, as well as a few ambassadors from Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Together, the ambassadors completed 50 projects, reached roughly 4,000 individuals, removed over 500 pounds of trash, and raised over $1,000 for conservation organizations.

Launched as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations for the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, the program nurtures future leaders dedicated protecting of our marine ecosystems. Its primary goal is to forge a pathway for students aged 13-18 to connect with work happening at NOAA and embark on careers as scientists, conservationists, and marine enthusiasts.

Youth Ambassador tile

Program Impact

A snapshot of student evaluations after the first year shows that the resounding sentiment is one of empowerment and inspiration. Participants expressed gratitude for the opportunity to delve into pressing environmental issues and commended the program for equipping them with the tools to effect change. Some anonymous testimonials submitted from these pioneer youth ambassadors include:

“I now know that I have the power to connect and make others aware of climate change and hopefully new people can learn about it and take action.”
“I think that the program taught me how to take initiative and create a space for myself. Before this, I would have never had the confidence to cold email university professors, or even really post on social media. The program has also empowered me to join climate conversations happening in my community and to even lead some of them.”
“By participating in this program, my leadership skills have definitely gone up significantly. If it had not been for all of these workshops and meetings and encouraging actions, taken by Claire Fackler, and the rest of the NOAA (team), I wouldn’t have been where I am now.”

Throughout the program, ambassadors were encouraged to take on an environmental-based project within their own communities. From organizing beach cleanups to leading educational workshops in their communities, and from starting environmental clubs at their schools to raising money for conservation organizations, participants have showcased a remarkable dedication to protecting our ocean and fostering environmental stewardship.

a graphic showing the impact of ocean conservation and stewardship projects completed by youth ambassadors
In the inaugural year of the Ocean Guardian Youth Ambassador program, nearly 50 projects were completed, reaching roughly 4,000 individuals, removing over 500 pounds of trash, and raising over $1,000.

Empowering Youth

The Ocean Guardian Youth Ambassador program offers a comprehensive curriculum tailored to empower participants with knowledge and skills essential for effective stewardship. Through a series of engaging activities and monthly workshops, youth ambassadors dove into topics ranging from marine protected areas, ocean acidification, marine plastics, and ocean and climate literacy, gaining a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of marine ecosystems. Guest speakers for the ambassadors included a World Ocean Day Youth Advocacy Council member, NOAA scientists, numerous Dr. Nancy Foster Scholars, and various NOAA staff.

One of the program's key highlights is its emphasis on practical skill-building. Participants not only expanded their understanding of environmental issues, but also honed public speaking and event planning skills. Equipping youth with these tools helps ensure they emerge as dynamic leaders capable of driving meaningful change in their communities. Over the course of the program, over 95% of the participants felt they gained an enhanced knowledge of ocean conservation and stewardship, as well as feeling confident about sharing that knowledge with their communities.

two young people look at a water sample in test tubes while standing on a tropical shoreline
Ocean Guardian Youth Ambassadors take action through environmental projects within their own communities. Photo: Claire Fackler/NOAA

Moreover, the program fosters lasting connections with NOAA and other regional partners, providing participants with ongoing support and opportunities for engagement. Ambassadors are encouraged to continue their journey as champions of ocean conservation even after completing the program. In a post-program survey, 100% of participants said they felt an increased responsibility for conserving the ocean, with over 95% of students committed to sharing that responsibility with others.

Looking to the Future

The NOAA Ocean Guardian Youth Ambassador program stands as a beacon of hope in our collective fight to conserve the world's ocean. With each cohort of passionate young leaders, we inch closer to a future where the seas teem with life, and the delicate balance of marine ecosystems is safeguarded for generations to come.

When the second year of the program launched in January 2024, NOAA received more than double the number of applicants, with accepted students representing 36 different states, as well as Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam.

a wordle showing words that youth ambassadors used to describe how they felt at the end of the program, with words such as hopeful, motivated, and passionate
A wordle showing words that youth ambassadors used to describe how they felt at the end of the program.

Designed to cultivate a new generation of ocean stewards, this initiative has ignited a fervor among young minds aged 13-18, inspiring them to take action and safeguard our blue planet for generations to come. At the final meeting to celebrate the completion and achievements of the inaugural year of the program, students were asked how they felt. Instead of focusing on the myriad of problems facing our ocean, ambassadors responded with messages of hope and feeling empowered and encouraged to tackle those problems.

Through initiatives like the Ocean Guardian Youth Ambassador Program, we are investing in the future stewards of our blue planet, ensuring that the tide of conservation continues to rise for years to come.

Brian Chansky is a Virtual Student Federal Service eIntern for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and an undergraduate student at the University of Delaware.