Green Spaces: Bringing the Classroom to the Campus Grounds

Anthro BlogStephanie DeStefano has a more intimate relationship with the AU campus than most students. This year, she not only graduates from the master’s in public anthropology program, but she also celebrated her 14th anniversary as Grounds Operations Coordinator at AU.

We talked with Stephanie to learn about her job at AU and how it has complemented her work as a public anthropology graduate student. When we reached her, she was sitting outside, in her favorite spot on campus.

“You might hear birds chirping in the background,” she said. “We have an amphitheater area, and it’s totally enclosed by trees, and a stream is running through here. There are tons of birds in the area, and you can’t see any roads or cars. On an urban campus, I just think it’s really nice to be sitting outside and not hearing the traffic and the typical noise you hear in the city, but hearing birds chirping instead,” she said.

Stephanie takes great pride in the university grounds and respects the way the administration has valued its care. She said, “We put a high priority on the landscape and maintaining it in a sustainable manner. We are very concerned about adding a lot of diversity to the urban landscape, and the campus has won many awards for the grounds.”


Stephanie’s Road to AU

Stephanie has a degree in horticulture from the University of Maryland and is a certified arborist. Busy with her career and raising three children, Stephanie worked at AU for years before deciding she was ready to take advantage of her access to free classes and pursue her master’s degree.

“It’s been a long process,” she said. “I picked anthropology because of the experience I’d had as undergraduate and because it combines my interests in humans and culture and plants and nature.”

Because the anthropology program allows students to pursue their own particular interests, Stephanie was able to make her coursework meaningful to her. “In every class I’ve taken, I’ve been able to combine and relate my interests in some way,” she said.


Bringing Together Career & Studies

The Substantial Research Paper that Stephanie completed for her degree involved an investigation of how AU faculty across disciplines utilize the American University arboretums and gardens as a teaching resource. She started the paper last fall, and was in the final stages of finishing it when we spoke. She has interviewed 28 faculty members.

“It’s been fascinating,” she said. “I’ve interviewed faculty that teach art, for example, and they take their classes outside and have them do projects where they draw something and then put the drawing away. They take it out two weeks later, and everything is different. The lighting is different, the plants around it are different, any nature around it will be different. So they’re trying to show that art captures a moment, and in nature, that moment is not repeatable.”

She also accompanied a journalism professor when he took students to the place where President Kennedy gave a well-known 1963 commencement speech on nuclear arms. While he taught students about the political significance of the location, he asked Stephanie to share her knowledge about the physical landscape.

“So the teachers aren’t using it necessarily for teaching about plants, but exposing students to history, and to what is special about the place, and getting a little bit of environmental knowledge in there as well,” she said.

“I interviewed one faculty member from the School of Education, and she teaches innovative ways to teach math classes. And she’s a nature lover. So she takes her students outside and they look at flowers and pinecones and things like that, and they talk about Fibonacci numbers and number sequences that are found in nature. If I’d had a professor who had taught math like that in my undergrad, I probably would have thought about math in a different way. Math has never been my favorite subject, but hearing about that made it real to me.”


Where Does Her Work Go From Here?

Stephanie plans to leverage the feedback she has received from faculty to further disseminate information and inspiration. “During my interviews, I asked the question: what can we do better to let faculty know that this resource is available and give them ideas?” she said. Possibilities include putting the information on campus TV screens, or making booklets or pamphlets that teachers can pick up.

Stephanie has already made progress toward supporting teachers in utilizing campus resources. She organized a panel at the Ann Ferren Conference in January, in which faculty members spoke about their work with the grounds. Since then, faculty contact her every week, asking for her input or support in using the campus in their teaching.

A marketing teacher has given his students the option of drawing up a marketing plan for the arboretum as their final project. “They’re going to turn it over to us. The university will look at it and take their good ideas, with the development office and the alumni affairs office getting the word out about what we are doing. I’m very excited to see what they come up with.”

The work she has done as a student has been rewarding and feeds her longer term hopes and goals for the AU campus—such as finding solutions to protect the Potomac River from campus storm water runoff, and working with a faculty member who runs a beekeeping society on campus, finding spaces that will work for the honeybees and ensuring that they won’t be harmed by pesticides.

“My goals for the future is that we continue to do this work. There is still a lot more to be done,” Stephanie said.


If you’re interested in a program that allows you to explore your specific interests and find real-world applications, check out our master of arts in public anthropology.

2 replies
  1. Jordan says:

    This sounds like a great initiative! Hope that this change of scenery is inspiring for the students. Thanks for sharing this.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *