‘Embracing the Unknown’: F&ES Honors the Class of 2015

yale fes commencement begins
The Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) on May 18 celebrated its 114th Commencement, awarding diplomas to the 158 members of the Class of 2015.
During the ceremony, which was held under a white tent on the lawn of Kroon Hall, F&ES Dean Peter Crane urged graduates to find opportunities to make a difference in a world facing profound environmental challenges. Echoing the words of Gifford Pinchot, the U.S. Forest Service’s first chief and founder of the School, Crane said a key element in achieving that is engagement with the public.

A century ago, Crane said, Pinchot advised Yale graduates that reaching the public required tact, sincerity, the willingness to hear other perspectives, and the ability to speak in terms that different audiences will understand.

“As Pinchot also exhorted to his early classes at this School, amplify your impact through others,” said Crane. “He said, ‘Encourage others to do things. You will accomplish much through others that you can't do yourself.’ Especially in our case, use the network of alumni of which you are now part and that everyday, all over the world, takes the long view as they seek to make the world a better place.”

The F&ES Class of 2015 included 145 Master’s graduates — 17 Master of Forestry graduates, 5 Master of Forest Science, 98 Master of Environmental Management, and 25 Master of Environmental Science — and 13 Ph.Ds.

Seventeen received joint degrees through the Schools of Architecture, Public Health, Law, Management and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
One of the class speakers, Heather West ’15 M.F. M.B.A., told the crowd that there’s a lot of talk about resilience at F&ES. There’s climate resilience, of course, as well as coastal resilience, forest resilience, and urban resilience. But there’s also personal resilience in the face of the unknown, she said. West, who was diagnosed with cancer last September, shared the story of why she decided to come back to School even as she battled the disease and how the community helped inspire her to keep going. And she reflected on how confronting the unknown has changed the way she sees life.
“I believe there’s an immense power in moving forward with your dreams in the face of uncertainty,” she said. “And guess what? The big, audacious questions that we are all trying to answer in our work are full of uncertainty.
I believe there’s an immense power in moving forward with your dreams in the face of uncertainty.
— Heather West
“Uncertainty makes you slow down. It makes you listen to yourself and it makes you listen to others. Perhaps most importantly it makes you realize that you need to be able to galvanize the people around you to be able to move forward with your work.”
Looking out at her classmates, she predicted that the crowd was filled with future policymakers and scientists who will shape the response to the world’s environmental challenges — not to mention the lawyers, advocates, entrepreneurs, foresters, health experts and writers who will also engage in the battle for a more sustainable world. But she expressed the hope that their ultimate legacy will be defined by more than just their professional sectors and job descriptions.
“I want our community to be remembered as a class that embraced the unknowns,” she said. “I want to be recognized as a cohort whose patience and humbleness exceeded their needs for accolades and awards. And I want to be on a team whose resilience in the face of uncertainty catalyzes solutions to some of the greatest environmental challenges facing our globe today. And I want to be there, with each and every one of you, every step of the way.”
Also addressing the graduating class was Kate Heller ’15 M.E.M., who reflected on the life and rituals of the F&ES community, its “capacity for joy,” and the unifying elements of this tribe that will keep its members connected into the future.
At its best, she said, people at F&ES are united by “a commitment to life,” a shared but sometimes undefinable pursuit.

“If we do the work that’s cut out for us right and well, it will be hugely challenging,” she said. “Nothing we make or do will come out perfectly. There are few right choices from here on out; there are just choices. But, if we choose to continue to further life, then that will always be the right choice...
“To my mind, a commitment to life is the most noble, invigorating and humbling commitment we can make. Our vitality is shared. My life is enriched by yours. However our paths may weave, it is my hope for us all that in our work, as in our rituals, we celebrate the great flourishing bounty of life.”

During the ceremony, Gina LaCerva ’15 M.E.Sc. received the inaugural William R. Burch Prize. The prize, which is named in honor of the founder of the School’s influential Tropical Resources Institute (TRI), honors the best paper written by a TRI Fellow. It includes a $1,000 cash prize.

Timothy Brown ’15 M.E.Sc. was presented the Strachan Donnelley Student Award, which is awarded to the master's student whose combination of coursework, research and leadership best blends the humanities with ecology and evolutionary biology in order to develop relationships between humans and nature, promoting long-term health, social justice and sustainability.

Watch the F&ES Commencement ceremony.
– Kevin Dennehy    kevin.dennehy@yale.edu    203 436-4842