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Meet National Needs Fellow Kayla Stukes

Kayla Stukes standing in a field - Meet National Needs Fellow Kayla Stukes - College of Natural Resources News NC State University
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This article is part of a Black History Month series highlighting the college’s faculty, staff and students who are participating in the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Needs Fellowship Program.

Kayla Stukes is a master’s degree student and USDA National Needs Fellow in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources. Her research focuses on identifying factors that influence the participation of racial and ethnic minority landowners in conservation programs in the United States.

Stukes is one of several students enrolled in the accelerated Master of Forestry degree program launched by NC State and Tuskegee University, a historically Black college and university (HBCU), in 2019. The program is funded by the USDA National Needs Fellowship Program. Stukes joined the program after earning a bachelor’s degree in environmental, natural resources and plant sciences from Tuskegee in 2020.

The National Needs Fellowship Program provides funding to faculty at colleges and universities across the country to support the recruitment and training of 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.

We asked Stukes to tell us more about the impact she hopes to make through her research and her involvement in the National Needs Fellowship Program. Check out the Q&A below.

How do you hope to make an impact through your research?

I hope that my research offers new insight to the barriers that minority landowners face in regard to participating in conservation programs that can be beneficial to them. The goal of identifying these potential barriers is to find solutions to combat them as well as to make participation and engagement of minority landowners in conservation programs more accessible. I believe that this research also expands into the overall conversation surrounding racial marginalization and how historic exclusion impacts us all in regard to the ongoing climate crisis. I believe that spreading awareness of how historic exclusion and environmental injustice has a direct detrimental impact on every citizen of the United States, will assist in the efforts of moving us in the right direction to combat climate change.

What encouraged you to enter your field of study?

As a child, I was always fascinated by the natural world. I loved the way the trees danced in the wind. I loved hearing the songs of birds in the mornings. I loved watching tadpoles swim frantically through the nearby river. I’ve always found solace in being in nature. I was also a girl scout at the Girl Scouts Nation’s Capital from ages 5 to 17, so you can only imagine how that experience contributed and nourished my love for nature as well. I’d say my childhood experiences were integral to my decision to pursue forestry in simple words.

How has the College of Natural Resources helped you along the way?

For starters, I have some of the most knowledgeable and helpful faculty members in my corner which has made my experience in the College of Natural Resources all the better. I’d say that the college has a very personable and welcoming environment and I love being a part of this college because of that. I believe that the individuals that make up this college, including both students and faculty, all have a common interest in nature. I get a sense that nature-oriented individuals have this “calmness” about them that makes the college a pleasure to walk into every single day. It’s hard to have a bad day when everyone is always smiling and welcoming. The attentiveness and diligence of the faculty members is very commendable and inspiring, making my experience all the better. It’s amazing to see how different yet similar individuals in our college are as well. An array of individuals with their own story but a similar passion makes for an amazing learning environment. 

What challenges have you faced in your career?

I’d say the most challenging aspect of my career field is the lack of diversity in regard to both race and gender. Forestry is a male-dominanted 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. With that being said, navigating this space as a Black woman can be a bit tricky because historically, the curriculum wasn’t intended to be very inclusive and so because of it, there are still a few barriers in place that make this career field a beast to navigate. But a challenge is always welcomed, as overcoming challenges often allows barriers to be broken.

What future aspirations do you have in your field of study?

One thing that I am very interested in is the connection between mental health and urban forestry. In the future, I hope to start a nonprofit organization that encompasses amplifying urban forestry in historically-marginalized communities and supporting these communities in creating and maintaining a healthy green environment. Combating environmental injustice and the many negative effects it has on the citizens of the United States is a huge goal of mine. Statistically, communities that are dominated by racial minorities are prone to having less access to green spaces. Research supports the fact that urban forestry and access to green spaces amplifies the quality of life and contributes significantly to overall well-being, whether that be mental or physical. My goal is to not only spread awareness of this issue but to make significant contributions to combating it as well. 

What advice do you have for the next generation of young Black professionals entering your field?

Some advice I have to offer to young BIPOC professionals entering the field of forestry would be to make it a point to step outside of your comfort zone. I believe a large portion of my success as a graduate student has come directly from me stepping outside of my comfort zone and going after things that were challenging. I have found that in order to make meaningful connections, I had to be willing to allow myself to be immersed in the experience of being a graduate student, which wasn’t always necessarily within my comfort zone. Naturally, I am a bit of a reserved and introverted individual — which is perfectly fine — but I had to learn when and where to step outside of that comfort zone if I truly wanted to be successful and to make the difference I intend to make.