Deeply Rooted

USD alumnus Travis Kemnitz ’02 (BA), holding a turtle on a boat

LOVE OF NATURE BECOMES LIFE’S WORK

An innate, deep-rooted love of nature comes through loud and clear when Travis Kemnitz ’02 (BA) speaks. Perhaps that’s why the new executive director of the San Diego Audubon Society waxes rhapsodic when he talks about growing up in Clackamas, Oregon, outside of Portland. “I grew up on a farm, and I have vivid memories of walking through forests. We were surrounded by animals and nature.” While he says his dad mainly “dabbled” in farming, the family also had “one of every farm animal” at one point or another.

His love of the natural world was deepened by opportunities to travel while still a teenager. When it came time for college, he knew that to continue to feed his exploratory yearnings, he was going to have to leave his home state.

Kemnitz recalls that a friend of his suggested he look at UC San Diego, so at a college fair, he gravitated to a booth with the words “San Diego” prominently displayed. As it turns out, the booth was actually for the University of San Diego. Fortuitously, the admissions counselor manning the booth convinced him to apply to USD. “And then, when I visited campus with my mom, I couldn’t believe it. I was going to college at a resort?”

A lover of the ocean, he initially thought he’d major in marine science. “Then I thought, maybe philosophy. I took an environmental philosophy course with Dr. Mark Woods and I got interested in the social aspect of science and the environment; the day-to-day decisions people make, shaping policies, government management, land ownership.” He took the middle path and settled his focus on environmental studies.

While a first-year student, he got interested in the Ocean Discovery Institute (ODI) during a class, and was brought on as a summer intern. He subsequently joined the institute upon graduation and worked there for the next 17 years.

He says that ODI started at the Mission Bay Sports Center “in a kayak closet,” over the years growing in its mission. Around 2007, the institute underwent a full rebrand. “We became hyper focused on one community, City Heights. It’s one of the most diverse communities in the nation,” he says. “We wanted to expose the community to STEM careers and pursuits.”

A desire to be “out there more, interacting with teachers and staff,” led him to pursue the position of executive director of the San Diego Audubon Society. When he was hired in February 2020, he had no idea that the world was about to change. But in a way, he’d been preparing for much of his career. “What’s interesting is, on my resume, I’ve always been the primary when responding to crises.”

So when COVID-19 and the subsequent societal shutdown hit, he was ready. “The pandemic played into my skillsets of 20 years,” he says. “It made me rise to a different level of leadership that I wouldn’t have been able to meet otherwise. We had to look at our programs and decide: ‘Do we go virtual? Do we put them on hold?’”

Since the society’s programs typically shut down to San Diego youth in the summer, Kemnitz and his team were able to look to the future. “This time has allowed us to reflect on how to launch in the fall and figure out how best to work with our after-school partners.”

He’s also excited to collaborate with some of his former USD mentors. “One of the first things I did was reach out to my old professors. ‘Game on; can’t wait to work with you!’ Science and research are a passion for me, one that I want to leverage.”

Given the many ways our world has changed, Kemnitz sees signs of hope in the ways that people are finding the value in staying closer to home. “Nature is a stress-reliever, a way to find happiness,” he says. “By exercising, enjoying the outdoors, directing your attention to birding, just exploring nature, there is solace to be found.” — Julene Snyder

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