Conservation pioneers: First recipients of Nelson Institute professional master’s already making an impact

November 10, 2015

Behrose Sherzad* first stepped onto U.S. soil on May 17, 2014. A little more than two weeks later, he was in a Science Hall classroom at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, hitting the books, committed to bringing a higher level of conservation clarity back to his home country of Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan is a very young country in terms of conservation,” Sherzad says. “We have relied on international experts to build the infrastructure, but we need to make conservation sustainable from within, as we cannot expect international conservationists to be in Afghanistan forever.”

“Afghanis must scientifically be empowered to lead conservation programs in Afghanistan,” he continues. “Therefore, it was important for me to advance my studies.”

Sherzad, already a conservation officer in Band-e-Amir, Afghanistan’s first national park, was the recipient of a highly selective scholarship from the Wildlife Conservation Society to pursue a master’s degree. While searching for the right institution to apply to in the United States, he connected with Nathan Schulfer, professional programs assistant director for the Nelson Institute.

The Environmental Conservation program combines on-campus learning and remote field experiences
The Environmental Conservation program combines
on-campus learning and remote field experiences.

Schulfer and colleagues Janet Silbernagel, the Nelson Institute’s professional programs director, and Jamie Hogberg, program coordinator, were preparing for the first cohort pursuing the Nelson Institute’s Environmental Conservation professional master’s degree, a 15-month, 32-credit program tailored to early-career working professionals.

The program combines on-campus learning and remote field experiences in an intensive, interdisciplinary curriculum. Students cover conservation planning, land use policy and a range of professional skills, including applied geographic information systems (GIS), fundraising and communications.

A separate thread of courses emphasizes personal and professional development, providing the leadership skills needed to succeed in and adapt to the ever-changing conservation sector.

When Sherzad learned of the hands-on program, he knew it was the right avenue for him.

“In my opinion,” Sherzad says, “Afghanistan needs management- and policy-based approaches. I looked at the specifics of the program – building leadership, conservation, and environmental management expertise – and I thought, Afghanistan doesn’t need a scientist in its current situation; what we really need are professionals.”

“Speaking with Nathan, he briefed me about the partnerships the Nelson Institute has and I knew then that this would be the program for me,” says Sherzad.  

Patricia Moran, a returning Peace Corps volunteer based in Zambia, who was also among the program’s first cohort, which graduated in mid-August, was similarly drawn to the professional degree model.

“The professional development aspect of the curriculum gave me the opportunity to mindfully bridge the transition between being a volunteer in the world of conservation to officially beginning a professional career in conservation,” Moran says.

While the Environmental Conservation master’s program is administered by the Nelson Institute, being part of the larger UW-Madison campus community creates countless opportunities for networking across departments.

“In short, I would say there are more opportunities at UW-Madison than at any other place I have been to,” says Sherzad. “These opportunities mean that there are so many different learning environments where people can build their skills and specific capacity.”

The 2015 Environmental Conservation cohort visits the Aldo Leopold FoundationThe 2015-16 Environmental Conservation cohort visits the iconic Leopold Shack during leadership training at the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy Ryan Thompson.


The program curriculum is built on the legacy of Wisconsin environmental leaders such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson, while integrating today’s top experts. It begins in Madison with the Summer Conservation Institute, where students are taught by world leaders in conservation and participate in Land Ethic leadership training at the nearby Aldo Leopold Foundation. An on-campus fall semester includes a select menu of courses in biology, ecology, social systems and sustainability, followed by a spring semester of distance learning.

The program concludes with a leadership placement experience in the subsequent summer semester. Students are placed with a range of host organizations to address significant conservation challenges, integrating the knowledge gained so far through the Environmental Conservation curriculum with the skills gleaned from a real-world work environment.

“A key success of my leadership placement was my ability to draw on skills and experience from my professional career while using knowledge and techniques from my coursework,” says Caitlin Williamson, a 2015 Environmental Conservation graduate. Williamson completed her leadership placement with the Smithsonian Institution Gabon Biodiversity Program, taking a 3-month leave from her position at the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, where she serves as program and development coordinator.

The 2014-15 cohort, made up of 25 students, traveled to a variety of domestic and international locations for their placement experiences, including India, China, Afghanistan, Ecuador, Chile and Gabon. Students worked with The Nature Conservancy, Wildlife Conservation Society, International Crane Foundation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other program partners on issues such as livable cities, wildlife monitoring, conservation planning, payments for ecosystem services, and the needs of rural communities near national parks.

The EC program concludes with a leadership placement experience; Caitlin Williamson, far left, a 2015 graduate, completed her placement in Gabon with the Smithsonian Institution
The EC program concludes with a leadership placement
experience; Caitlin Williamson, far left, was placed with
the Smithsonian Institution Gabon Biodiversity Program.

The exposure to on-the-ground conservation projects and connections to new colleagues gained through the program have in several cases led to career positions for students. Recent graduates are already contributing to conservation efforts in resource management, communications, fundraising and development, and community outreach and engagement at organizations including the USFWS Pathways Program, World Resources Institute, Integrated Pest Management Institute, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

“Once here, each of the 25 students took full advantage of their curriculum, the expertise of their instructors and peers, and the student services of our program office and ran with it,” says program director Silbernagel. “As I attended their exit seminars this August, I found it remarkable and rewarding to hear the breadth of experiences and career directions the students gained. They found and secured positions through their own newly acquired skills, confidence, and finesse.”

Darcy Widmayer, a 2015 graduate who works as an education and outreach specialist with the Wisconsin DNR, believes she emerged from the program a more thoughtful and reflective conservation practitioner.

“Moving forward into the professional field of conservation, I’m confident that the skills I’ve gained through this program will help me make important decisions, work compassionately, and try to leave a positive footprint on the planet,” she says.

Sherzad has now returned to Afghanistan, working to preserve the environment of his homeland and drive support for conservation action.

“That is my vision,” he says. “It’s something I’ve built my capacity for, and it’s something that is in my heart.”

*Fictitious name used for security reasons.

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