Student Profile: Kaya Dani Pungello

“I feel like that is how I help the world become a better place, by making people aware during my trips.”

On Campus Undergraduate and Accelerated Master’s Student

Kaya Pungello is originally from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. After attending schools in Asheville, North Carolina and Washington D.C., she ended up in Washington state for two years. Her latest move finds her here at Prescott College, studying Adventure Education as a senior transfer student. Kaya applied for the accelerated masters program, so she plans on being here for a few years. “The Master of Arts and Adventure Education programs are really self-directed. I built a plan that integrated those two areas of study to help move my career forward. I picked Prescott College because I’ve been working as a river guide for a few years and I wanted to learn more about the educational side of the outdoor industry, and I wanted to go to a place where there was a lot of social justice talking and thinking.” said Kaya.

Kaya had some concerns about moving to Prescott, Arizona but felt that the Prescott College community would be very accepting and welcoming of LGBTQ+ individuals and she reports that, “it definitely has been so far.” Coming from Washington state, an area entrenched in the Queer community, she believes some folks in the area need to learn more about gender diversity and hopes they are open to do so.

Kaya brings a strong social justice perspective to her studies in Adventure Education and the outdoor industry. She feels outdoor education is more masculine-based and she intends to help make it more accessible, especially to the Queer community. “But you know, we all have different barriers to being in that space. I am a non-binary, trans, femme person. I wasn’t really identifying as a woman or trans when I started as a river guide and after my first season, I started coming out to people. That was about 4 years ago. At the time I was making various changes to my appearance. These days I don’t really do much about my appearance. I mean, I’ve been living out in my car and camping. So, I blend as more of a masculine figure.” said Kaya. “I have my friends who know who I really am but when I was interacting with people in the river community, it was nice to just not have that label on my back all the time. I’m really working to break that down.”

Kaya was a presenter at the 2018 LGBTQ Outdoor Summit, held on Ohlone and Coastal Miwok ancestral land near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. The mission of the summit is “to cultivate connections, build community and inspire leaders from across the outdoor industry and beyond to create more accessible and affirming ways for the LGBTQ community to get OUTside.” She also recently served as a guide for a river rafting trip for queer adults in Seattle through an organization that helped put on the summit. She reflects on the experience and appreciates the opportunity to “work on educational trips because I can kind of be myself, especially in front of students to help them learn how to respect their friends or family because this is the queerest generation, to create a safe space.”

Kaya reflects on her ability to engage in field based experiences including the new student wilderness orientation. “The most meaningful experience for me so far is probably orientation,” she states. She appreciated the close family bond that she formed with her instructors and classmates during the experience. She also appreciated that her specific orientation group was comprised of older students who had experiences attending other schools, some experiences that were tough and made them appreciate the small community that Prescott College affords.

“In high school I was trans, but I wasn’t out. Some people knew I was bi and that’s how out I was in high school. It was weird, I was really kind of a nerd. I mean, I’m still a nerd but a nerd that takes boats over waterfalls,” joked Kaya. Kaya thinks of herself as a strong individual who has been through a lot, and because of this, she is trying to create a safe environment for others in the LGBTQ+ community and broaden the appeal of outdoor adventure.

Red Lambert