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Photo: Kim Hachadoorian
Charley Stewart at The Nature Conservancy. Photo: Kim Hachadoorian

The survival of ecosystems depends on resiliency

University of Pennsylvania graduate student designs plant memorial project to make people care.

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Charlye Stewart is a passionate graduate student at The University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design, pursuing a Master’s in Landscape Architecture, interested in creating systems that foster a better relationship between wildlife and people.  

Although Stewart aspired to become a medical examiner in high school and became a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) to be more involved in healthcare, she notes that in her first year at Howard University, she decided biology was the right field to pursue, transferring to the University of Delaware, and later acquiring a Bachelor of Science in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation from the University of Delaware.

She shares how her maternal and paternal grandmothers, respectively, contributed to her love and appreciation for nature. 

“They instilled in me that nature is your equal,” she explained. “Who are you to determine that you are going to squish a bug, or who are you to determine that you should kill a tree because they almost equated it to killing a person.”

The exposure she received in the wildlife program at the University of Delaware made her realize there were many things she didn’t know would interest her— an exploration path that further her knowledge of animal behavior and how their bodies function in winter versus summer climates. 

She credits her internship with the University of Delaware Edible Forest Garden for introducing her to design and the person in charge of the program for making her realize the relationship between design, animals, and wildlife.  

However, her time as a Program Animal Specialist at the Brandywine Zoo gave her first-hand exposure to building a relationship with animals—becoming close with Enrique, a milk snake who had cataracts and was blind.  

“I was originally scared of snakes before Enrique,” Steward said. “Something is interesting about a blind snake, even though they don’t necessarily see with their eyes.” 

A mentor from The Nature Conservancy motivated Charlye to apply to Penn because “that’s where you are supposed to be,” she candidly shares, adding she did not believe she would get accepted to the ivy league institution, let alone be able to attend the university with a full scholarship— Charlye is one of two black students in the landscape architecture cohort. 

Photo: Courtesy
Charley Stewart at University of Delaware Apiary. Photo: Courtesy

Resiliency vs. Sustainability 

Stewart shares that ecosystem survival and longevity depend on resiliency and not sustainability—a concept Stewart believes relies on systems set in place ability to adapt as society evolves.

The current issues impacting wildlife conservation are habitat loss and fragmentation, which limits water for environmental flows. Stewart notes that “we don’t associate places with what was already there,” but often “associate with what it will be,” like in the case of urban development and how it decreases biodiversity and increases exposure to an assortment of pollutants. 

At Penn, Charlye has been able to develop different studio projects, including a plant memorial—an idea of the seeds and the roots coming out of the ground moving through the trash, Above and Below—a sculpture garden, as she likes to think of it, that provides a form of awareness meant to encourage people to care about wildlife but also consider how it fights to survive humans carelessness.  

LAF IGNITE Scholarship 

The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) announced its first group of LAF Ignite program participants— Stewart was one of four students selected to receive a comprehensive scholarship, internship, and mentorship during its summer internship. The program supports BIPOC landscape architecture students, and Ignite participants receive an annual $10,000 scholarship, an annual paid summer internship, and three types of mentorships throughout their academic journey. 

Stewart referenced her full scholarship to attend Penn during LAF’s interview process, sharing that “I have all these loans, not even from paying for school, but to afford groceries.” The multi-year scholarship is crucial to ease students’ financial burden and provide students the opportunity to build a network, explore career options, and work through challenges with a supportive group— her experience as an Ignite participant has been positive. She adds it is a “very nurturing space, and they’ve already made it apparent that even once I graduate, I’m still going to be included” in different opportunities and will receive assistance obtaining a job after completing the master’s degree program. 

Her advice for wildlife and landscape students is to get their hands and feet dirty and to “be okay with being the only person of color in a room.” 

Allow yourself to experience things you are not familiar with or comfortable with.

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