Raised in Virginia by a single mom, Ryan Lazo (Anthropology and Environmental Studies, ’13) saw the power of a serving heart from an early age. Since he migrated out west in his early 20s, Lazo has left a wake of positivity on people and the planet wherever he’s rooted in, from Durango to Pullman, Washington, and back again.
“My mom dragged me to March of Dimes walks and charity events as a kid,” says Lazo. “I didn’t understand it at the time, but I grew up appreciating community service. And anywhere I’ve moved as an adult, I’ve tried to leave a positive impact on the community.”
As a first-generation college student, Lazo worked through college, establishing in-state residency while working at a mountaineering shop in Glenwood Springs. In between excursions in the mountains that drew him to Colorado in the first place, he enrolled in Colorado Mountain College’s anthropology program.
“I’ve always been curious about people and cultures and what motivates them to do the things they do,” he reflects.
In 2011, Lazo signed up for a visit to Fort Lewis College’s campus and after a memorable dinner at a barbecue joint in Durango, he says the rest is history. Like many FLC students, Lazo was first drawn to FLC’s access to the outdoors but it was the profound connection to professors that really sold him on the idea of a small school.
“I realized I could make an impact as a student,” says Lazo, who served as president of the Anthropology Club and sought out volunteer opportunities in environmental education on campus and beyond. During his two years in Durango, Lazo worked with FLC’s Environmental Center, the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, and Durango Nature Studies, guiding snowshoe trips in the winter and leading camps during the summer.
“I was always so fascinated by how people survived out here in the desert, and that ethnobotany curiosity really drove me to get out even more to learn more about my natural surroundings,” says Lazo. “The more I learned, the more I wanted to teach.”
In Environmental Anthropology with Rebecca Austin, associate professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies, Lazo discovered an opportunity to manage the Southside Community Garden at East Fifth Avenue and Second Street. He wanted to deepen his knowledge about gardening, and by the end of the experience, ended up forging an even deeper bond with the plants of the Four Corners, and like-minded people who also enjoy digging in the dirt.
Lazo graduated from FLC in 2013 with degrees in Anthropology and Environmental Studies. Over the years, Lazo had reconnected with Lauren, a high school friend who had moved to Colorado around the same time. The two ended up getting married and when Lauren got funded to attend Washington State University for graduate school, they moved to Pullman, where Lazo once again plugged into community development.
During his two terms serving with AmeriCorps in Pullman, Lazo worked in watershed restoration and was then tasked with launching the Palouse Fresh Food Project. He managed volunteers and resources, together rerouting 20,000 pounds of landfill-bound food to instead filling the bellies of food-insecure families around the region.
As his passion and talent for fostering relationships with businesses and nonprofits grew, Lazo was approached by Washington State University with a customized position crafted just for him as the Community Partnerships Coordinator. The job was ideal, and then he and Lauren welcomed their baby boy, August, in March 2020. A year later, the family was thriving, but pieces of their hearts were still in the desert southwest.
One evening, after a two-hour chat about dreams and goals with Lauren, Lazo got online “just to check” if FLC had any new jobs posted.
“The timing was just so right,” says Lazo. “I popped on the website, and there was this position for the director of Alumni Engagement. Seven weeks later, here I am.”
Moving from a university of 30,000 students at WSU back to FLC’s cozy 3,500 student population was a dream come true for Lazo. He’s thrilled to be back in a sphere of collaboration with his peers while also reconnecting with faculty who inspired his journey as a student.
"I get to serve the institution that gave so much to me and provided a place where I could make a difference as a student."
“I get to serve the institution that gave so much to me and provided a place where I could make a difference as a student,” he says.
Lazo’s genuine curiosity about the natural world still provides a guiding light, but it’s his delight in service that will continue to shape his legacy at FLC. Welcome, Ryan!