Lead Scholars

Preparing future leaders

The natural resource management and environmental issues confronting current and future generations are daunting and present complex challenges for graduates entering the workforce. Aware of these challenges, the Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences (NRES) Department recently launched a new program to prepare students as future leaders by developing strong interpersonal, teamwork and project-management skills. The Leadership Education, Application and Discovery (LEAD) Program, a cohort-based leadership program and the first of its kind at Cal Poly, launched in February, enabling students to collaborate on real-world projects that will better prepare them to be conservation and natural resource professionals.

The donor-supported program is open to students of all academic years majoring in one of the department’s three majors: environmental earth and soil sciences, environmental management and protection, and forest and fire sciences. Students selected to participate will gain leadership training skills while working on applied land conservation, ecosystem management, and resource sustainability projects.

Assistant Professor Yamina Pressler, program facilitator, said the new program will serve as a model for students coming into the department who want to make a difference. “We want the program to support activities that engage students in developing as professionals and people of the world,” Pressler said. “Being able to see a model of students who are addressing these issues can be very motivating and create a culture of problem solving.”

Along with Pressler, Assistant Professor Seeta Sistla and Department Head Jeremy James will oversee the program and support students with their projects, connecting them with stakeholders and environmental needs in the community. The program structure exemplifies Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing philosophy and aims to address environmental issues on campus and in the local community, while expanding the diversity of leaders entering the workforce. “We don’t have the representation and diverse viewpoints that we need to tackle our most serious environmental challenges,” said James. “One key impact for the program is to make meaningful progress in diversity and the types of leaders we bring into the environmental field.”

In January, the first cohort of seven students were selected among dozens of applicants from the department, and in February, initial group meetings took place where students started brainstorming project ideas. Projects span a variety of topic areas, including waste production in the dining commons on campus, wetland conservation outreach and education, and housing insecurity in the community. LEAD program member Sophia Ortiz, a fifth-year environmental earth and soil sciences major, is interested in creating more community spaces on campus that bring NRES students together and has been researching what makes up these kinds of spaces. “I have done a lot of grassroots work in clubs,” said Ortiz. “Having faculty support to tackle the issues you see in the community is monumental. Being able to work together and receive feedback and direction is so helpful.” Thanks to support from generous donors giving to the NRES LEAD Program, students are given a $1,000 budget to support program and project activities, along with an annual $2,500 stipend for their participation. Contributions made by donors to the program are essential to its growth and success in preparing the next generation of environmental leaders at Cal Poly.

“Technical expertise is not enough to solve the state’s pressing environmental challenges,” said Tim Northrop, senior director of development. “Today, students also need training in leadership, communications, collaboration and project management to make a demonstrable impact. I encourage alumni to get involved in supporting our students through this unique program.”


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