Outstanding graduate Nakisha Nathan receives top 2015 commencement award

Nakisha NathanGSE master’s graduate Nakisha Nathan took home more than a diploma at commencement this year. She was also recognized by the university with the President’s Award for Community Engagement.

Nathan arrived at PSU in 2012 armed with a bachelor’s degree in bioenvironmental science from Texas A&M University. Her goal was to learn how to connect communities to their environment, which led to the GSE’s Leadership for Sustainability Education (LSE) master’s program. This program emphasizes leadership, biocultural diversity, social justice, and economic sustainability.

Nathan is a former legal assistant with a variety of experiences in outdoor education. She spent three years in the LSE program and served as a school garden liaison and teaching assistant, working with two middle schools and the Learning Gardens Laboratory. For her final project, she worked alongside Professors Dilafruz Williams, Sybil Kelley, and Heather Burns on a National Science Foundation grant, Science in the Learning Gardens: Factors that support racial and ethnic minority students’ success in low-income middle schools. The grant is focused on helping low-income middle school students boost their proficiency in STEM using the school’s garden program and thus help them meet the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)*.

The project was located in two PPS middle schools, Lane and Lent in southeast Portland. These are schools with highly diverse student populations and families who are economically challenged. Nathan was the garden coordinator and also the communications coordinator for the project. She also organized and led countless meetings with the community partners engaged in the project.

Nathan’s success lies in her ability to organize and assign the tasks at hand, involve students and volunteers, and communicate respectfully and effectively. “Nakisha listened and engaged with individuals and groups, identifying assets and capacities in each person, and then inspire them to work towards a common goal and vision,” said Williams who nominated her for the award. “The respect that Nakisha showed community partners, including youth, is authentic and sincere.”

Nathan demonstrated an exceptional capacity to work with inquisitive middle schoolers and quickly learned to adapt lessons on the fly that kept them engrossed. “I had to learn to find a teaching moment in what they were interested in and use their own curiosity to help them find the intrinsic joy and value in what they were learning,” said Nathan. One of her challenges was to help students look at gardening as a science “rather than manual labor to be avoided,” she said.

Post-graduation, Nathan continues to volunteer for many of the projects that operate out of the Learning Gardens Laboratory. A recent Earth Day event found her teaching a worm composting workshop to students and their parents. She is especially interested in engaging with parents in the community. She has taken an active leadership role in building sustainable communities with the local groups and has been successful at engaging parents of diverse communities to learn about healthy food choices for their children.

Today she works part time as the artistic director at Common Sense Gardens, a local business that provides garden design, coaching and education. One of her concerns for the future is a definite lack of diversity among practitioners in the field of sustainability. She is dedicated to working with communities of color and intends to change all that. Given her current success, she is well on her way.


*Oregon is one of 26 states to adopt Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in March of 2014. This grant serves as an opportunity to demonstrate that garden-based instruction can meet those standards.

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