Meet a Husker: Elijah Riley


Elijah looks to a camera for a photo while he prepares to take a photo of the environment around him

Through hard work and support from the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program, Elijah Riley — an agricultural and environmental sciences communication major from Lincoln — is making an impact in the community. His nonprofit Big Gumdrop Outdoors works to connect urban youth with hands-on education about the great outdoors and he can’t wait to see how the program grows.

What originally drew you to your major?

I took a digital imaging and storytelling class when I was a sophomore. In this class, we dove deep into the art of conservation storytelling. Through using pictures and videos that I then paired with written word and poetry, I created powerful projects that made me feel good about myself and encouraged me to explore this field as a career. I learned about the major — Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Communication (AESC) — around this same time and it felt like the perfect fit because in this field we create new ways to tell the story of natural resources in a way that incites emotion, education and change.

Talk about Big Gumdrop Outdoors.

Big Gumdrop Outdoors is a nonprofit that provides urban youth access to hands-on education about the great outdoors. I originally started this business as a multimedia company using social media to educate about various topics. However, in 2023 I made a pivot and I began providing hands-on opportunities to youth. Ever since this shift, I have experienced great leaps in the business and received more support than ever. In the summer of 2023, I ran an 8-week program at the Clyde Malone Community Center where the youth engaged in all sorts of topics. Anywhere from wildlife identification and ecosystems in Nebraska, to the use of pictures and videos to tell stories about nature and actually creating and presenting their work, all the way to opportunities to go fishing, set up tents and cook with a campfire. In the future, I will be running an after-school program at Lincoln Public Schools and am excited to see what is yet to come.

The idea of building bridges between urban youth and natural places is really interesting. How did you identify this as something you wanted to do?

Growing up I always wanted to be outside, exploring nature. The problem was I was born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska so my options were limited. As I got older and began getting into new outdoor recreation activities, like backpacking, hunting and hiking, I experienced a lot of barriers. I didn’t know where the best places to go were; I didn’t know what gear I needed; and I didn’t have anyone around that could help me. None of my immediate family or friends did these things so it was up to me to figure it all out. This is when I started my business to provide other people the access and resources that I didn’t have. Being a person of color in this field, there aren’t many people that look like you. I wanted to shake up the system by providing a new image to youth that they can do anything they want.

How has being involved in Engler impacted your personal development and that of your organization?

Being involved with Engler has seriously impacted who I am and where I am as an entrepreneur. I have received so much support from this community and they help keep the fire burning in my belly. Specifically, the coursework and conversations with faculty are the tools that have helped me learn more about myself and what I want my business to be. Another great impact Engler has had on me is exposing me to business people across Nebraska and the New England area on the various Engler treks I have been a part of. During these treks, we get to tour businesses, hear stories from entrepreneurs about how they got to where they are and learn about innovative ways to grow our businesses.

You were part of the We Are Nebraska interns which, like Big Gumdrop Outdoors, relies heavily on storytelling. Can you speak to the power of storytelling?

We Are Nebraska was one of the first times I was given the opportunity to be open, honest and vulnerable about who I am in front of a large group of people. I loved the applied improv techniques and still use that training to this day as I get comfortable with the uncomfortable things in life. I believe that storytelling is one of the most powerful tools we have. It is a medium to convey emotions or give people insight into your experiences. The art of storytelling is something I focus on in my business because I want people to feel connected to me and my mission through the stories I tell.

Is there anything you hope to accomplish in your lifetime?

I want to leave an impact, not only on lives in Nebraska but lives across the world. I am passionate about people and providing others with opportunities they wouldn’t normally have. I want everyone to have a chance to succeed in this world and I want to be known for being a person that never let that mindset die.

What or who inspires you?

My mom inspires me. She is a kind, gentle and loving woman. She gives freely of herself and is always looking out for the people around her. Every day I wake up I am thankful for her and the lessons she has taught me through my life. She is excellent at planning for the future while remaining in the present and that is something I aspire to gain as a skill.

What is your advice to other students looking to make an impact on campus?

My advice to students looking to make an impact on campus is to put yourselves out there and don’t look back. It’s too easy to get in your head on whether or not you should jump at an opportunity. That doubtful voice in your head needs to get silenced and you need to go get involved. There are so many clubs, sports, and social events that happen on campus. I encourage you to make the most of everything that is offered, talk to people, get comfortable with being in uncomfortable situations and I promise the world will unfold before your eyes.

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