Carmia Feldman shows how a university reimagined its campus as a living laboratory.

When Karyn Utsumi entered the University of California, Davis, majoring in environmental science and management in 2017, she didn’t anticipate that she would eventually spend countless hours wearing waders and working with other students to restore a prominent water body on campus. Yet she knew that she wanted to turn her deep care for the environment into something that made a difference in her community. During her freshman year, she saw an announcement about the Waterway Stewardship internship with the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden. She applied and was thrilled to be selected.

The UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden spans the entire 5,300-acre university campus, with a historic arboretum, founded in 1936, at the center. By applying the management and engagement principles of a public garden to the campus at large, the university aims to enhance how the entire Davis community views and interacts with its environment. Our student internship program, which Karyn joined, is our top initiative to do just that—by developing the next generation of environmental leaders. The program is called Learning by Leading™. Students gain leadership and technical skills as they tackle critical environmental issues with real-world, hands-on projects. As students progress through the program, they take on more responsibility through our mentor-supported “leadership ladder.” Students start as learners and then can work through a succession of leadership positions, including project leader, team leader, and apprentice.

For students in the Waterway Stewardship internship, their living laboratory is the Arboretum Waterway, a creek-like body of water that runs through the historic section of the arboretum. The waterway is part of the campus stormwater drainage system and is dammed at both ends. While it resembles a creek, the Arboretum Waterway is effectively a pond, which means that it comes with common pond issues: nutrient- rich water and unsightly algae formation. After Karyn was hired as her team’s coleader during her junior year, she led her interns in developing a floating wetland with sedges and other native plants that take up nutrients from the water as they grow. From afar, the planting resembles a green island. She worked hard to create consequential experiences for her team, learning to see and celebrate each member’s unique skills.

Over seven hundred students have now gone through the Learning by Leading program since it began in 2008. Another student, Ricardo Black, transferred to Davis from Los Medanos College, a community college in Pittsburg, California, for his junior year in the fall of 2019. He became a student leader for our Habitat Horticulture team, which enhances the suitability of campus gardens for native pollinators and other wildlife. Ricardo and his team worked in the Pollinator GATEway Gardens in the arboretum proper. A series of GATEway Gardens have been designed collaboratively with academic departments to showcase their research and teaching to visitors. The Pollinator GATEway Gardens, highlighting plants important for native bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other pollinators, were created with the nearby School of Veterinary Medicine. The project aligns with the school’s research on the interconnections between the health of people, animals (both domestic and wild), and their environment.

Ricardo’s leadership skills were tested when the pandemic forced our normally hands-on, outdoor internships into a virtual format. He demonstrated fast, adaptive leadership as he navigated his team through the initial unpredictable months of the pandemic. He found that it became even more essential to develop peer-mentor relationships, which encouraged his growth as a communicator. Ricardo says, “During the program, I was put in a position where leadership and innovation skills were needed to make things work in an environment that was unpredictable and always changing due to the pandemic.” Similarly, Karyn credits the Learning by Leading program for shaping her into the collaborative leader she is today. When she started the internship, she told herself, “I need to work hard and figure everything out by myself.” Then, as she progressed through the program and gained leadership experience, she realized that strength comes through working together.

 Karyn also says that Learning by Leading helped her discover her twin passions for restoration and environmental education. She graduated in the spring of 2021 and immediately was hired by two local environmental organizations: the Putah Creek Council, where she organizes community volunteers to do creek restoration work, and the Solano Resource Conversation District, where she serves as an environmental educator. Karyn’s growth as a leader and her impactful postgraduate jobs exemplify the power of reimagining the traditional university campus. All university campuses are more than lawns, sidewalks, and buildings— they can be spaces where tomorrow’s environmental change-makers learn to lead.

Carmia Feldman serves as the assistant director of the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden.

From “free” to “friend”…

Established in 1911 as the Bulletin of Popular Information, Arnoldia has long been a definitive forum for conversations about temperate woody plants and their landscapes. In 2022, we rolled out a new vision for the magazine as a vigorous forum for tales of plant exploration, behind-the-scenes glimpses of botanical research, and deep dives into the history of gardens, landscapes, and science. The new Arnoldia includes poetry, visual art, and literary essays, following the human imagination wherever it entangles with trees.

It takes resources to gather and nurture these new voices, and we depend on the support of our member-subscribers to make it possible. But membership means more: by becoming a member of the Arnold Arboretum, you help to keep our collection vibrant and our research and educational mission active. Through the pages of Arnoldia, you can take part in the life of this free-to-all landscape whether you live next door or an ocean away.

For more tree-entangled art, science, and writing, subscribe to Arnoldia by becoming a member of the Arnold Arboretum.