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More than 2,000 miles from his adopted Bronx home, Ecuadorean native William Quizhpi found a connection to his native roots during a visit to a Montana Indian reservation last month.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” he said in a telephone interview. “The people there made me feel in touch with the heritage I have.”

Quizhpi visited the American Prairie Reserve south of Malta for 10 days in July as part of an SEO Scholars trip. SEO, Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, is an academic program that helps low-income high school students attend college.

American Prairie Reserve first partnered with SEO last year to give the city students an immersive introduction to rural life, the Montana prairie, bison, dinosaurs, prairie dogs, a rodeo, county fair and American Indians.

“It’s directly in line with our goal for public access and enjoyment of that biosphere,” said Hilary Parker, communications and outreach manager for American Prairie Reserve.

Founded in 2004, the nonprofit American Prairie Reserve is working to create the largest nature reserve in the United States by purchasing ranches in central Montana. As part of that goal the group is also working to restore native species, such as bison, to the prairie.

It’s a place that appealed to Quizhpi, despite its removal from anything he has ever known or experienced.

“I miss it very much,” he said. “I had never been to the Mountain West, and I just imagined it was going to be in the middle of nowhere. There was some of that, but it was also really beautiful. I loved the prairie, hiking and the wildlife. Around here in New York we don’t have such beautiful landscapes.”

Quizhpi moved to the United States from Ecuador when he was 8 to join his parents, who had immigrated north in search of “the American dream,” he said. Because of his native heritage, Quizhpi was especially intrigued by the SEO group’s trip to the Fort Belknap Indian Community.

During that portion of the visit, Quizhpi said the group helped a tribal medicine woman collect medicinal plants such as sweetgrass and yarrow. The lesson he took away from the experience was that the plants had given up their lives for him, so he should give thanks to the plants.

The visit for the high school senior was so transformative that he’s now considering “taking the risk” to attend college at the University of Montana and expanding his studies to include field biology after his contact with a variety of scientists during the APR trip.

“It felt welcoming,” he said. “The people there were really friendly and open.”

Siri Eliasen, who helped guide the students through their Montana trip along with instructors from the Montana Outdoor Science School and other APR staff, said she hopes the teens take a sense of wonder, concern for the environment and a zest for adventure back to their urban lives.

It’s a place that has already made a strong impression on Eliasen. A native of the Seattle area, she said the vastness of the prairie, “how it goes on forever,” was “the most startling thing” for her when she first visited the area about six years ago.

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That sense of wonder and vastness struck the group on two occasions when large lightning storms roared across the expansive prairie.

“We stood there in awe,” said Yacine Fall. “We were literally blown away by the wind. We saw lighting from 20 miles away and I was like, whoa.”

Fall, a 17 year old Harlem student, has visited strange lands before. She traveled to Senegal, her parent’s homeland, years ago. But she’d never been to a place quite like the Montana prairie, which she found more diverse ideologically as well as ecologically.

“I thought it would be very conservative,” she said. “But Montana is more diverse than I expected it to be.”

It was also her first exposure to an array of wildlife, such as the bison herd that roams the American Prairie Reserve.

“I learned the importance of wildlife,” she said. “I’d never been a wildlife person who advocated for animals. But now I understand that they are beings that should be advocated for.”

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.