When I sat down with Kylie Sambirsky in our city of Boulder, Colorado, it hadn’t rained in over a month. Awareness about water conservation trickled through the average University of Colorado Boulder student’s train of thought as scarcely and slowly as the Colorado River now runs after years of climate change and drought.
Even further from everyone’s mind was the oceans. Thousands of miles away from the University of Colorado Boulder, everyone here has other things they prioritize worrying about. Closer things. More urgent. Everyone, that is, except for Kylie Sambirsky and her small but devoted team of ocean lovers.
In 2003, a young Sambirsky was exposed to the ocean for the first time when she saw “Finding Nemo” in theaters. After falling in love with the movie and, consequently, the ocean, she watched it extensively, even taking her first steps while the movie was playing.
Now, she’s leading the charge of landlocked states in water preservation as president of the Colorado Ocean Coalition. While the Colorado River is shrinking and Rocky Mountain wildfires are polluting natural streams, Sambirsky is dedicating part of her hectic schedule to providing education and opportunities surrounding ocean health and water access to her fellow classmates at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“It’s something that affects all of us, it will affect our children and our grandchildren, and it’s gonna be this thing we are all responsible for,” said Sambirsky.
Raised in Calgary, Canada, by parents who preferred mountains over beaches, Sambirsky cites her need to rebel as part of the reason she became so passionate about the ocean. While she dreamt of studying oceanic sciences as a child, her self-described disdain for hard science led to her studying psychology, music, French, and public health—and led her to the Be Involved Fair in August of 2021, eager to find a way to stay involved in oceanic preservation. Once she found COCO, it was only a matter of time before she became an executive member, and eventually president, of the club.
“I’m surprised how I ended up in this position, since I’m extremely shy…I think I was one of the most enthusiastic [members], so that’s how I came into the presidency,” said Sambirsky.
Since assuming the role of president, Sambirsky has been promoting awareness of ocean preservation in a state, much like her home city, surrounded by mountains—meaning, not many residents have the ocean on their mind.
“We’re over a mile high, we think our actions aren’t really applicable to the ocean,” said Sambirsky.
However, Coloradans’ actions are more applicable to ocean conservation than some could ever imagine. According to Addie Miller, Outreach Coordinator for COCO, residents of Boulder, and Colorado in general, shouldn’t be fooled by the state’s lack of coastline.
“Colorado has the continental divide, which means everything in the US is downstream from us. Anything we put in our water will eventually make it to the ocean,” said Miller.
The challenge of making landlocked residents care about ocean conservation is a daunting task. Sambirsky, however, has faith in her school and its state.
“I think we definitely have the potential to be doing some real good, I think we just need to make it a little more personal, maybe… the typical Boulder person is already very aware, very in love with nature. We just need to make it personal,” she said.
“Making it personal” is thus an underlying theme in COCO’s upcoming projects. Sambirsky and her dedicated team are planning many different events and opportunities, including a benefit concert around Earth Day, a crash course on writing op-eds about legislation, and club-wide scuba certification through the CU Boulder Recreation Center.
Sambisrky doesn’t request much from CU Boulder students—after all, it’s hard to keep up with her dedication.
“Any action is an action,” said Sambirsky. “Sometimes it just boils down to some people not having the time or the resources to participate in person. Someone may not have a car, so you have to catch a bus, or take time off of work to make it to a protest. There’s a whole lot of obstacles in the way.”
That being said, when asked if she thinks the CU student population is aware enough about water and ocean preservation, Sambirsky replied:
“Oh god, no. I think it’s evident when we do our creek cleanups, the subject is usually the moat on the hill, and there’s so many beer cans.”
Ultimately, while CU students have the potential to create real change in the realm of ocean preservation, Sambirsky is going the extra mile to make the dream of an involved campus a reality.
While her busy schedule (Sambirsky also is an executive member of a workout club on campus, an orientation leader for incoming first-year students, a member of the Psychology Honors Society, and is in the inaugural cohort of undergraduate fellows at a wellness institute), Sambirsky is seen as just the person to lead COCO by many.
“Kylie is a hard worker who constantly throws herself at new challenges and ideas,” said Lauren Swartwout, CU Boulder student, Vice-President of COCO, and friend of Sambirsky.
Because of this and her lifelong care for the ocean, she is sure she can and will make concrete changes for ocean conservation.
“I think that this was what was supposed to happen,” said Sambirsky. “This is the path I’m supposed to be on.”