A More Diverse, Equitable Future for Natural Resources

At the NC State College of Natural Resources, the focus on diversity, equity, inclusion and justice (DEIJ) has never been greater or more important as our faculty and staff take bold actions to build genuinely equitable and inclusive environments, including participation in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Needs Fellowship Program. 

The National Needs Fellowship Program provides funding to recruit and train graduate students, particularly those from traditionally underrepresented groups, in order to increase the number, quality and diversity of students in the food, agricultural and related sciences. 

Zakiya Leggett, an associate professor of forestry and environmental resources, has managed the college’s participation in the program for several years. She’s currently leading a project aimed at providing a pathway for students from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) into the Master of Forestry degree program at NC State. 

The project builds on a pilot program launched in 2020 in partnership with Alabama-based Tuskegee University to offer an accelerated graduate degree program to students from underrepresented groups who are interested in pursuing forestry careers. 

As part of that program, students spend three years at Tuskegee and then transfer to NC State’s Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources during their senior year. Once they graduate with their undergraduate degree from Tuskegee, the students apply for admission into the Master of Forestry program. 

Leggett and other faculty provide pre-admission mentoring and professional development for the students throughout the year leading up to their transfer to NC State. Upon transferring, the students enjoy an expanded network of mentors who provide academic support and a variety of other professional development opportunities, including industry internships. 

Our National Needs Fellowship program prepares high-caliber graduate students of color for matriculation and professional success,” Leggett said. “It also supports the USDA’s goal of developing a diverse and highly-skilled workforce for employment shortages in forest resources.” 

Recent studies show that people of color represent a small percentage of the workforce in many STEM-related fields, including forest resources. In fact, according to the Census Bureau, less than 3% of foresters and conservation scientists in the United States are African-American. 

The disparity in representation within forest resources and related fields is partly a consequence of higher education institutions failing to enroll and support students of color with adequate academic support, leadership development and work skills, according to Leggett. 

Leggett has recruited seven students of color so far through the Tuskegee-NC State accelerated degree program and the National Needs Fellowship Program. That includes Kayla Stukes, who enrolled at NC State in 2021 after earning her bachelor’s degree in environmental, natural resources, plant sciences from Tuskegee University. 

Stukes, who is now conducting research focused on identifying factors that influence racial and ethnic minority landowner’s participation in conservation programs, said her participation in the program has offered her the opportunity to challenge historical barriers.

“Forestry is a male-dominated field. There also aren’t many racial minority individuals in this field either. I am a firm believer that representation is important for a successful academic experience, and so although I am seeing this field slowly expand in diversity in both of these specific groups, I feel like our generation acts as a pivotal point when it comes to representation which means we are paving a way that wasn’t there before,” Stukes said. 

In addition to recruiting master’s degree students, the college’s faculty is also working through the National Needs Fellowship Program to recruit and train doctoral students in social and natural sciences for studying environmental justice problems in their research. 

Jennifer Richmond-Bryant, an associate professor of the practice in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, is co-leading the program alongside Madhusudan Katti, also an associate professor, and Shaefny Grays, interim director of community for diversity. 

“Our grant aims to increase diversity while building capacity for performing research that centers environmental equity and justice,” Richmond-Bryant said. 

Environmental justice is an academic and policy framework intended to evaluate the equitable distribution of environmental benefits and the minimization of environmental stressors across populations, especially for low-income or racially marginalized communities that are often disproportionately impacted by pollution. 

Unfortunately, scientists in the field of natural resources rarely encounter environmental justice in their academic training, research, or hands-on practical experiences, largely due to the structure of doctoral programs at institutions of higher education. 

“I think students often don’t get a breadth of classes in their Ph.D., and they rarely if ever receive training in subjects that include both social sciences and natural sciences,” Richmond-Bryant said. “Gaining such breadth will ultimately help the students respond to the questions that communities find most pressing.” 

Richmond-Bryant, Katti, and Grays, have recruited three doctoral students from diverse backgrounds for the National Needs Fellowship Program. Throughout the duration of the program, the students will take courses and conduct research with a focus on environmental justice theory, practice and methods. They will also participate in hands-on training through external experiences, ranging from international research to internships with community partners. 

“Environmental justice deals specifically with addressing disparate impacts of pollution or reduction in environmental benefits for communities or populations. The external experiences are an essential piece to allow students to engage directly on the problems relevant to their training,” Richmond-Bryant said. 

Rachel Wood, a first-year doctoral candidate in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, is one of several students conducting research under the supervision of Richmond-Bryant and her colleagues. She joined the program in the summer of 2022 while completing a master’s degree in earth science from North Carolina Central University, an HBCU located in Durham.

Wood, whose research focuses on using an environmental justice framework to evaluate air emissions from a wood pellet facility right outside of Ahoskie, North Carolina, said her time at NC State has provided her with “the resources and academic guidance that I need to be successful as a Ph.D. graduate student.” 

“The support has really helped me excel as a student and has strengthened the confidence I have for myself,” Wood said. “Transitioning from an HBCU into a predominantly white institution can be difficult. However, my peers and advisors have contributed to making that transition as smooth as possible.” 

This post was originally published in College of Natural Resources News.