Headshot of Blankenship in his park ranger uniform
Steven Blankenship (19) works at Mission Trail as a park ranger for the City of San Diego. He works to restore and protect plants that are native to San Diego while also educating future generations about the land. 

“Everyday is a little different, there is a lot of variety, I’m never doing the same thing for more than a few hours,” Blankenship said. 

Blankenship said that the best way to describe his job is with these three words: Educate, Protect, Restore. “We educate park visitors, lead field trips…, protect the park from the people and protect the people from the park, and we do a lot of habitat restoration, invasive removal and monitoring, and planting of natives.”

He transferred to PLNU as an environmental science major one year into his education at San Diego State. His mom had attended PLNU for one year before, and although she did not graduate from PLNU, she felt the school would be a great fit for him. 

“I started gardening before I could speak,” he said. “My parents both worked when I was younger and I had a babysitter, [Margaret], who grew up in a rural part of California. They had animals and a large garden and they grew a lot of their own food. She taught me how to garden. [She] was a big influence for me when I was younger, she was the age my grandma would be.”

Photo of Blankenship with Margaret, his babysitter who taught him how to garden.
Blankenship and Margaret

Despite having a love for gardening at a very young age, Blankenship did not always know he wanted a career involving horticulture — a science he explained as “the application of science based practices to landscaping.”When he first started college, he was considering trying to be a doctor, which appealed to him as a respectable and high-paying career. However, he soon realized that it was not the right fit, and discovered that his job could be something he already had a passion for: gardening. 

“What I’ve always really enjoyed outside of playing sports when I was younger was gardening,” he said. “But that never even came up as something I could make money or a career out of. I think I really should have focused on what I actually enjoyed doing.”

Blankenship said that the best way to describe his job is with these three words: Educate, Protect, Restore. “We educate park visitors, lead field trips…, protect the park from the people and protect the people from the park, and we do a lot of habitat restoration, invasive removal and monitoring, and planting of natives.”

Blankenship said that Mike Mooring, Ph.D., Professor of Biology at PLNU, gave him a lot of direction when he was trying to figure out his career. He had the opportunity to go on a research trip to Costa Rica with Mooring near the end of his time as a student at PLNU. This trip involved monitoring different members of the ecosystem (including big cats) to gather research for conservation efforts in Costa Rican forests. 

“I had a really good relationship with my professor, Dr. Mooring,” Blankenship said. “I was on his research team for Costa Rica and he suggested going to Au Sable institution of environmental science since I had said I was interested in teaching.”

Blankenship worked an internship for a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic began. The internship was a teaching position for Au Sable Institute and through the experience, he found that he had a passion for teaching. 

“I went to the one in Michigan (Au Sable Institute) and had a teaching internship there right after I graduated. Unfortunately, that ended because of Covid, so I came back to San Diego and I worked at the San Diego Zoo in guest services. I was hoping to be a keeper but it looked like that would be several years out.”

After working at the Zoo, he was a Horticulturist at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. He saw this as being a long term career, but it didn’t end up working out in the end. 

Blankenship teaching some boy scouts the difference between poison oak and wild blackberry.
Blankenship teaching some boy scouts the difference between poison oak and wild blackberry

“When I didn’t get that job at the Safari Park, I was really disappointed. I did enjoy working there and I saw that as a potential career. But, they recommended that I go back to school and get a degree in horticulture. I started taking classes in horticulture at Cuyamaca College and that’s how I got into it. It ended up being good for me; I learned a lot by going back to school.”

His environmental experience helped him earn the job as a park ranger at Mission Trails in San Diego. His position allows him to also pursue his interests, and he gets to educate children from grades 2–6 about the environment. 

“I like the field trips,” he said. “Sometimes the kids are a little rowdy, but most of the time they’re pretty good. Once you learn how to manage groups of school children and you transition a rowdy group into a group that’s learning and having run, that is really rewarding.”

One aspect of his job includes taking care of the land and protecting it from invasive plants that harm plants that are native to the area.

“I have selected areas of the park that need remediation, they have a heavy load of invasives,” he said. “Those invasives threaten and spread into healthy habitats. I eliminate the invasives and replant natives. In one season, you can turn a sizable strip of land from a non productive habitat into a productive habitat.”

Blankenship said that this is a lot of work and would not be possible with the great volunteers that help him with the removing and planting of these species. “I really do like working with the community. There’s a lot of people that are heavily involved and invested in the well-being of the park because the park means a lot to them.”