From NFL cheerleader to Nat Geo explorer,
Mireya Mayor shares stories on stage

Mireya Mayor (center) leading her team for History Channel’s Expedition Africa. (L-R) Pasquale Scaturro, Benedict Allen, and Kevin Sites. Photo: Courtesy History Channel


By Tara Pettit

While she never knew she would one day be a safari explorer in some of the most remote parts of the world, Mayor did recognize early on her burning passion for keeping animals and wildlife well cared for. As early as age six, what she calls her “unnatural love for the natural world” was apparent; however, it took a university science course and an inspirational female professor for Mayor to realize that what she loved most, even as a child, was the stuff that made her wildly successful careers a reality. 

Embracing her childhood dream, former NFL cheerleader Mireya Mayor went from being an English/Philosophy major at the University of Miami to an anthropologist and wildlife conservationist. She traded in her Dolphins uniform for safari boots when she took on a career as a National Geographic explorer, becoming the organization’s first televised female correspondent. Her story is one she is passionately taking across the country in a speaking tour that will land in Dayton next week as part of the Victoria Theater’s, “National Geographic Live,” a three-part speaker series showcasing our world through the eyes of explorers, photographers, and filmmakers. 

Mayor shares stories of her safari adventures—“and misadventures,” she likes to add—exploring the most remote regions of the earth in search of elusive, rare, and little-known wildlife. With her presentation magnified by the beloved, iconic imagery of National Geographic, she will share how her explorations led her to several scientific discoveries, most notably her co-discovery of the world’s smallest primate, a brand new species to science, in Madagascar. From surviving poisonous insect bites to being charged by gorillas and elephants, Mayor has many tales of heroic feats that illustrate her overall message of promoting conservation and preservation of the world’s most precious, rapidly dying animal species. 

Mayor’s story is much broader than even the wide landscapes of her exploration tales. Entangled in her narrative is the experience of becoming who she is today; of being the “girly girl going into a very male-dominated field,” as she puts it. Her story, which is also the plot of her book, “Pink Boots and a Machete: My Journey from NFL Cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer,” details her personal history from being a girl with unrealized potential to experiencing the transformation that came from letting her natural interests and skills direct her future. Part of her history, and what has now become the platform on which she stands, is perseverance, forging into the unknown—geographically, culturally, socially—to defy the status quo by becoming a woman scientist. 

Her journey to becoming a National Geographic explorer took her from her cozy life in Miami, where she attests to being “the cheerleader who was into fashionable clothes and makeup” and plunged her into the depths of an African safari where she was surrounded by men, dangerous wildlife, and the incredibly pressing stigma of being “too pretty for” or “not looking the part of” what her role traditionally represented. However, it’s because she overcame those obstacles by being true to who she was that she now has a story to share, and footprints leading today’s youth toward empowered, self-realized futures.

Mayor plans to share a message for people who believe they do not have what is required for, or have been told they cannot pursue, what they feel a burning passion to do. As the first female National Geographic explorer to have her own television show, “Ultimate Explorer,” who has gained success in a very stereotyped, prescriptive career field without sacrificing who she is as a woman, Mayor has become an inspirational role model. For Mayor, sharing with audiences details about her professional life as a successful scientist requires that she also share how that experience has been colored by her experience as a woman in the field. In more than one instance, she has been singled out for her appearance, been told no, and, most tragically, discouraged from following her dream. Despite her challenges, she believes critics, as well as steps she has taken to overcome them, are what make her story so powerful, encouraging young women to consider the values they can contribute to the sciences. 

Numerous cultural and societal influences perpetuate stereotypes and perceptions of women entering into scientific fields, and Mayor is not ignorant of how deep seated prejudices hold young women back. She acknowledges the lack of individual investment from our educational institutions that is essential to cultivating an environment that supports and encourages students to apply their natural talents and interests to their school studies.

“I was always an outdoors-y kid, climbing trees and running around, but I never knew I could combine my love of nature and animals, or that my interests could be an actual career,” Mayor said. “We are not taught to think outside the box of how our skills can actually transform into something we are incredibly passionate about. When I realized I could work with animals as my job, it was exciting and enlightening. In school, I had just been going for the known and traditional.”

The “known and traditional” Mayor refers to is one of the fundamental challenges that not only keeps women from confidently pursuing careers in the male-dominated sciences, but even more broadly cripples children in a one-track, impersonalized public educational experience that fails to nurture their inherent talents. When students aren’t supported in discovering and applying their inherent gifts and talents, and are instead groomed to follow the mold of universal curriculums and pre-defined paths of study, their career decisions typically fail to utilize their natural abilities. 

Mayor’s message aims to combat the cycles of stereotype and judgement that young students are caught in, which keep them from engaging in fulfilling “work that doesn’t feel like work,” as she often refers to her own career. 

“All my skills and interests came together and formed my scientific career,” Mireya said. “I love, more than anything, what I do—chasing down endangered lemurs and ultimately doing what it takes to make a difference so they don’t go extinct. There’s actually a vast number of women doing work out there as scientists and conservationists and the media has a responsibility to show this. I think that goes an incredibly long way to dispel this notion of young girls not knowing they can do this too.”

Mayor also points to a critical element in her educational experience that was key to her recognizing her potential. She attests to the personal investment she received from two educators who, as dedicated mentors to her development and growth, helped her explore and cultivate what she was already good at and interested in. Support she received as far back as kindergarten from her very first teacher to the instrumental guidance from her anthropology professor in college, fostered what knowledge, vision, and most importantly, confidence, she needed to leap into a career she has been told multiple times she would not succeed in.

“At the end of the day, what really changed my life was that I had a professor who was unbelievably passionate about her field of study take the time to work with me,” Mayor said. “She not only fueled my fire, but she supported me in ways that made all the difference, including helping me start my field work by applying for my first grant.” 

The impact of just one personally invested and enthusiastic mentor, Mayor believes, can be the most important factor in helping students understand what they excel at, and access opportunities that allow them to practice their skills, a factor she also believes is fundamentally missing in our educational system.

“It’s our responsibility to stop educating with a cookie cutter type of teaching and boxing kids in, some of which learn very differently and have very different passions,” Mayor said. “There’s no straight path for anybody. It takes teachers excited about what they teach with a hands-on approach, who are then able to pass that love and passion for the subject on to their students.” 

She also points out that a goal for educators today should be to help students see beyond their current circumstances and to believe that they can pursue their dreams without sacrificing their individuality. She shares with audiences how she has achieved success because of her differences, not in spite of them. 

“It’s really important for teachers to recognize kids’ unique abilities at an individual level and not let gender or perception of gender get in the way of that,” Mireya said.

One important channel to combatting the cookie cutter approach to science education is the nation’s science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) school system, designed to cultivate students’ specialized skills for careers in the sciences. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s website, STEM schools equip students with the knowledge and skills to problem solve, gather and evaluate evidence, and make sense of information. The school system was created as part of Barack Obama’s priority to increase the number of students and teachers who are proficient in science-based fields.

Most important in the STEM educational culture is the philosophy and methodology of teaching with a hands-on approach, working with students on an individual level that discovers and leverages the skills, interests, and abilities that students brings on the first day of enrollment. 

Dayton is home to its own branch of the STEM school network, Dayton Regional STEM school (DRSS), where superintendent, Robin Fisher, is proud to report success in creating a stimulating and successful environment within the Miami Valley for students to study and pursue careers in the sciences. She indicates that approximately 80 percent of DRSS graduates go on to pursue studies or careers in STEM, which is three times greater than the national average. Fisher believes the K-12 school system holds “enormous potential to impact students’ decisions to choose science careers” and leads DRSS with educational strategies that aim to leverage the individual strengths of students through hands-on and personalized teaching methods. 

“At DRSS we use project-based learning to engage students in their own learning, to connect them with regional partners, and to teach them the 21st century skills that will help them be successful in any career,” Fisher said. “Through career fairs, job shadowing, and internships, we hope to expose our students to career opportunities and connect them with mentors to help realize their potential.”

Fisher acknowledges the vital importance of students receiving one-on-one guidance, including individual time set aside for mentorship outside their normal curriculum to understand how to discover and apply their individual interests and skills to a career they will find fulfillment and success in. DRSS students are connected with an outside content expert, who becomes a mentor to the student to explore job shadowing and internship opportunities based on inherent passions and talents they have recognized within themselves. She believes the foundational educational strategies DRSS employs are also key for attracting young women to careers in STEM and helping them discover, through personalized mentorship, how to use their natural skills to pursue a scientific career.

“While it was initially difficult to attract as many female students to our school, we now find we have an almost even number of young men and women that apply to DRSS,” Fisher said. “It’s important to show young women the various options that are open to them in the science fields. We help build their confidence and interest to pursue careers in these nontraditional fields.” 

Fisher is excited about Mayor’s upcoming speaking event in Dayton, believing her story will connect with Dayton’s young women and inspire them to pursue options in science.

“I think her story is amazing and inspiring,” Fisher said. “Her sense of adventure and lifestyle shows that science is not boring.” 

Mayor, likewise, is excited about sharing stories of her travels with the Dayton community, preparing to take us behind the scenes of some of the most remote places in the world with beautiful photography, giving us a sense of the “adventure and misadventure you don’t always see on the big screen.” Her presentation will cover the challenges, difficulties, successes, and rare moments she has had the opportunity to experience in the field. 

What Mayor is most looking forward to, however, is sharing her bigger story with Dayton—a story encompassing the successes, failures, adventures, and misadventures, both in safaris and in life—that have brought her to where she is today.

Join Mireya Mayor at the Victoria Theater on Sunday, Jan. 28 at 3 p.m. or Monday, Jan. 29 at 7 p.m. to hear her speak as part of Victoria Theater’s National Geographic Live three-part speaker series. Tickets are on sale at TicketCenterStage.com starting at $27. For more information about the National Geographic Live series and Mayor’s speaking event, visit Victoria Theater’s website at VictoriaTheatre.com. For more information on Mireya Mayor, visit her website at MireyaMayor.com.

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Tara Pettit is a regional journalist and communications specialist with a focus on the arts, social/environmental justice issues, and community activism. She is passionate about cultivating intentional community and engaging in collaborative creative projects that make healthy community possible. Reach her at TaraPettit@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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