Willie Buford can trace his love of the outdoors to his childhood and the days he spent with his grandpa, a nature lover who encouraged his grandson to explore the wonders of his urban neighborhood in Flint, Michigan. Buford — recently named a 2019 National Geographic Education Fellow — now is looking to do the same for young people attending afterschool programs. There’s a big world outside the classroom, he says, and he wants to make sure students are aware of it and prepared to take it on.
“I love working with kids after school. I get to watch them learn, but I don’t have to grade them,” he says of the students attending YouthQuest, an afterschool enrichment program for K-12 youth in Flint. Now a site manager overseeing the operation of five YouthQuest programs, he remembers with great fondness his own afterschool activities. In particular, he’s grateful to “Mrs. C.,” a local block club president who tapped him to lead a junior version of the club while he was in elementary school.
“She saw something in me,” he said. “She thought I was a leader, and she found ways to help me learn how to lead.”
As a National Geographic Education Fellow, Buford will again get the chance to lead. As the first fellow to work exclusively in the area of afterschool, he will have the opportunity to incorporate the educational resources and priorities of the National Geographic Society into the time children spend outside the classroom. He’ll work with seven other fellows from around the country, all of whom will receive training and support from National Geographic to enhance their projects.
“They’re a truly awesome group of educators,” said J.T. Hardin, senior manager for the National Geographic Society’s Education Leadership Programs in Washington, D.C. “Willie embodies everything we’re looking for in a fellow,” he continued. “We’re not experts in the area of afterschool, and he’s not only an established educator in that space, but he also believes in the Society’s strategic ambition — a planet in balance. He’s a leader, and that’s the number one thing we look for.”
Buford’s introduction to the National Geographic Society “came out of nowhere,” he said. His supervisors at YouthQuest tapped him to attend one of the Society’s summer teacher institutes as a guest of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, which is partnering with the National Geographic Society to develop new curriculum resources for afterschool programs. The three-year project, supported with an initial grant of $450,000, will utilize the Foundation’s 50 statewide afterschool networks to further develop, pilot and test content, as well as educator trainings and student materials.
For Buford, the week-long institute was both inspiring and gratifying. While he’s not entirely sure why he was selected, he says his military experience might have played a role. The former U.S. Army private first class enlisted right out of high school, serving for three years, including tours of duty in Germany and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“I had never traveled too far out of Flint,” he said. “It put me in the middle of a whole new experience.”
His time with the armed services increased Buford’s confidence and sharpened his love of travel, new places and new people. But after his discharge, he found that his military skills did not transfer well to civilian life.
“I didn’t know what to do with myself,” he said.
While working in restaurant management, he met his future wife, who invited him to volunteer with her church. It was there that he began working with kids, and he loved it.
He enrolled at Baker College in Flint, with a goal of earning a secondary teaching degree in social studies. At Baker, he was selected to join the Smart Teachers as Role Models (STAR) Initiative, a leadership development program funded by the Mott Foundation to address the scarcity of African-American male teachers in the elementary and secondary schools of Flint and Genesee County. It was through the STAR Initiative, he said, that his love of nature was renewed.
“Our group took a trip to northern Michigan — a place I’d never visited,” he said. “It was a real adventure, and it helped me remember how much I loved being outdoors, exploring new things.”
So when his YouthQuest supervisors offered him a chance to travel to Wyoming for one week of training with the National Geographic Society, Buford didn’t hesitate to accept.
Nominated to apply for the year-long fellowship by National Geographic staff and classmates from the summer institute, Buford began the “nerve-wracking” process of applying for the program. Submitting a video about why he should be considered for the fellowship program was a personal challenge, he said. But his belief that afterschool programs would be a great fit for inspiring and engaging students in geography, exploration and science helped him make his case.
“Willie rose right to the top of our applicants,” said Hardin. “Every candidate is reviewed by a team of our senior education specialists, based on a set of criteria. We were looking for a fellow to work in the afterschool space, and his application stood out. We look forward to working with and learning from Willie. We’re excited to share the great work he has done in Flint with other educators across the country.”