Sustainable Horticulture Student Coordinators Nguyen Nguyen and Kathy Geurtze teach a group of volunteers in proper planting techniques. This team helped landscape a new pollinator display garden in the west end of the Arboretum.
Sustainable Horticulture Student Coordinators Nguyen Nguyen and Kathy Geurtze teach a group of volunteers in proper planting techniques. This team helped landscape a new pollinator display garden in the west end of the Arboretum.

Learning by Leading: Inspiring students to improve our campus and community environment

Updated December 17, 2015

What many people do not realize is how critical student leaders have always been to the survival and success of the Arboretum and Public Garden. From the time UC Davis students helped plant the first redwoods in the Arboretum in the 1930s, they have always been an essential part of our team. Student employees and interns are involved in project-based, leadership positions throughout our organization. Whether you attend a plant sale, a family education program, or are simply enjoying a walk through the plant collections, you have likely interacted with our invaluable interns and student employees. This year, we are working with 63 students in environmental education, sustainable horticulture and naturalized land management who are all part of a program we call “Learning by Leading.”

As we align the resources necessary to continue growing this program, we thought it would be helpful to pause and look back to share the history of this effort, acknowledge the staff and donors who have helped to shape the program, and to thank the hundreds of student alumni for their important contributions.

In 2005, after an extensive public outreach process, we launched the UC Davis GATEways Project (Gardens, Arts and The Environment) – a framework for engaging our students and community with the physical campus and creating lifelong learners connected with the academic mission of  UC Davis. This unique project allowed us to formalize the process by which students can use the campus landscape as a laboratory for their own academic and professional growth and, in the process, create spaces, programs, and exhibits that engage the campus community and broader public in the innovative work going on every day at UC Davis.

In 2007, to support this framework, three students leaders created our first formal, year-long student internship program — the Arboretum Ambassadors — thanks to a prestigious scholarship from the Corella and Bertram F. Bonner Foundation and AmeriCorp. Today this innovative leadership team, now led by Academic Coordinator Elaine Fingerett, inspires hundreds of children and families each year through creative environmental education events. For the past eight years, the Arboretum Ambassador Program has served as a pilot, proof-of-concept, and foundation for our larger Learning by Leading Program. It has garnered support from our members as well as individual donors like Bret Hewitt and Deb Pinkerton via the Pinkerton Prize for outstanding student leadership in environmental education, and now is gaining attention from foundations.

In 2012, with support from the Excelerate Foundation, we began to apply the best practices from the Ambassador’s program structure to other internship teams in sustainable horticulture and naturalized land management. We examined how to best support student-led projects, maximize peer-to-peer teaching, and provide authentic, real-world training in project management and 21st century leadership skills. Each program now has a staff mentor, two paid co-coordinators, and a team of 4-12 interns who work together over the course of the academic year to solve real-world challenges across the campus. Students who commit for multiple years can grow in their leadership capacity over time and make lasting impacts in areas such as water conservation, food security, environmental education, and habitat restoration.

Now, with up to seven student teams learning in the Arboretum and Public Garden each week, our community and region benefits from the positive impacts of working with students as true partners and leaders. Individual donors and businesses are sponsoring the Learning by Leading Program because they see the impacts it has on environmental issues and on the students themselves.

The Learning by Leading Program already has a network of over 550 alumni, many of whom have gone on to leadership positions in sustainable design, nursery management, outdoor education, conservation science, research, and horticulture in California and throughout the United States. As we reflect on the history of this important program and imagine its future, we want to thank these inspiring young leaders not only for their contributions to our local ecosystems and outreach efforts, but also to the environmental field at large. Their skills and passion to tackle the environmental challenges that face us all will help countless communities and landscapes thrive now and in the future.

If you are interested in supporting this program, we hope you’ll consider a gift to our Annual Appeal. This year the Friends of the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden are raising funds to further support the Environmental Education strand of Learning by Leading. LEARN MORE.

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