For Emily Barrett Cook, growing up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains wasn’t enough to put a career in forestry on her radar.

“I came to Virginia Tech as a biochemistry major,” said Cook, a 2020 forestry graduate who is now pursuing a master’s. “I had taken AP biology and chemistry and liked those classes, but as a first-generation student, I was really lost in the whole process and quickly realized it wasn’t a fit for me. I heard about the forest resource management concentration and jumped in, and I’ve loved it ever since.”

Cook’s experience reflects a challenge faced by the forestry and environmental resources industries: having traditionally relied on informal pathways and networks to draw workers, both industries are struggling to diversify their workforce.

A young woman wearing fatigues, a reflective vest, and a hardhat stands in a forested area with several other people in the background.
Emily Barrett Cook, right, pictured during a field lab in fall 2018, was the first recipient of the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s Next Generation Scholarship. A May 2020 graduate, Cook is now pursuing a master’s in forestry at Virginia Tech. Photo by Krista Timney for Virginia Tech.

Now, the Next Generation Scholars Program is providing significant financial support to underrepresented students majoring in forestry and environmental resources management at Virginia Tech. The program, housed in the College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE), was spearheaded by Associate Professor Carolyn Copenheaver, Professor John Seiler, and Assistant Professor Adam Coates in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation.

“The goal of the program is to increase diversity at the undergraduate level, in part so that we can potentially have more diversity in the pool of graduate students pursuing careers in forestry or natural resources,” Copenheaver explained. “In considering what students we were interested in, first-generation students were an important target, as were women and people who come from an underrepresented racial minority.”

The program, funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Higher Education Multicultural Scholars Program, provides students with a $6,500 scholarship in their senior, junior, and sometimes sophomore years, with additional funds available for professional development or summer research work.

“This scholarship has impacted my life significantly, as money was something I was worried about in college,” said Heaven Aziz, a senior studying environmental resources management. “But beyond that, it made me realize that there are people at the college looking out for me who are willing to go out on a limb for me. I’m so much more comfortable with my professors in the college, and that’s translated to my interactions with other professors.”

Reaching students mid-stride

Recognizing that first-generation and minority students often struggle to complete their undergraduate education, Copenheaver wanted the scholarship program to reach students who had already started their college experience.

“There are numerous scholarships that focus on getting freshman students into a major, but we know that many of the students in our college find us later,” explained Copenheaver, who has taught forest ecology at Virginia Tech for 20 years. “We wanted to help students who had gotten through their first and perhaps second year, students who were doing well but needed some help maintaining their success.”

Cydney Chambers’ Next Generation Scholarship gave her the opportunity to spend the past summer conducting historical forest ecology research. Working under Copenheaver’s supervision, Chambers used centuries-old land survey documents to gain insight into what North American forests looked like as European colonization progressed.

“We looked at five tree species, with a particular focus on the butternut,” said Chambers, a junior forestry major from Rappahannock County, Virginia. “A fungus that causes cankers to form on butternut trees is taking a huge toll, and we wanted to see how the spread of the tree has changed from the early 1800s to the present day. From the records we found, we’ve been able to develop a mingling index to determine whether certain types of trees preferred the presence of other trees.”

For Chambers, receiving this scholarship and being able to apply her learning while working collaboratively with professors has given her confidence to find her voice.

“When you realize that your major is comprised of people who aren’t like you, it can feel intimidating to try to convey your knowledge and demonstrate expertise,” she said. “With this scholarship, I’ve gained a confidence that I’ll need to succeed in this field.”

A young woman wearing a face mask outside crouches down and examines a plant with one hand while holding a pen and clipboard in the other.
A Next Generation Scholarship enabled Cydney Chambers, pictured during a fall 2020 field lab, to conduct historical forest ecology research this summer under the guidance of Associate Professor Carolyn Copenheaver. Photo by Krista Timney for Virginia Tech.

The importance of mentorship and giving back

Copenheaver said that a highlight of the scholarship program is the strong mentorships that develop between faculty and students.

“I’m passionate about teaching and I love seeing students learn about the subjects I teach,” she said. “One of the aspects I’ve most enjoyed about this program is that we form strong bonds with the students who are selected. It’s great to work with them and see them make strides in their knowledge and confidence.”

For Aziz, being a Next Generation Scholar has provided her with connections she didn’t expect coming to a large university like Virginia Tech.

“When people ask me about my college experience, they often talk about how big Tech is and ask if I ever feel lost,” said Aziz, who worked with Coates and Seiler this summer, researching the wax content of leaves of the mountain laurel, a shrub species that is highly flammable. “I tell them not really, because I feel like the CNRE is a family, and this program is a huge part of that.”

To help reach a new generation of future students, the scholarship recipients take a service-learning course taught by Seiler to learn how to effectively communicate science to a broad audience. They then develop presentations about their major and share them with area middle and high schools.

Copenheaver notes that it is especially important that programs in forestry and environmental resources encourage the participation of underrepresented students. “I think the CNRE is a welcoming place, and if students can find us, they are happy here. But there is a challenge of role models, of finding people who will keep an eye out for you and be aware of what experiences and backgrounds a student might be bringing in and how those might differ from one person to another.”

Cook, the first recipient of a Next Generation Scholarship, can already see a change coming.

“When I finished my undergraduate degree, there were three women graduating in my major. I never felt any prejudices from my classmates, but it was something I was aware of. But I saw that there were a lot more women in the class following mine, and even more in the one following that. It seems like the field is really changing, and I feel fortunate to be part of that change.”

Written by David Fleming