Earlier this spring, Sarah Sharp joined the Brandywine Conservancy’s staff as a new assistant planner in its Municipal Assistance Program. Sarah previously worked at the Conservancy as a planning intern for three months prior to accepting her full-time position. She is currently finishing up course work at West Chester University for a dual M.S. in geography/urban and regional planning. In the interview below, Sarah discusses her new role, what it’s been like transitioning from student intern to full-time planner, and what she is most looking forward to as she begins her career at the Conservancy.
Prior to accepting a full-time job with the Conservancy, you interned with the organization for a few months. Tell us about your experience transitioning from a student intern to a full-time staffer in a professional workplace?
My transition from intern to full-time staffer has been very smooth, thanks to the support, encouragement, and confidence of my colleagues. Great care has been given to making sure my workload is balanced with a diverse set of projects, without being overwhelming. My first couple months full-time have been spent learning from the many experts I now work with, and I have also been trying to absorb as much information as possible. I jump at any chance I get to work on a new project or in a different capacity so that I can keep building on my experience. Over these last few months, I have learned so much; yet, there is still so much to keep learning and I am very excited to continue this learning processes.
What first got you interested in planning and conservation work?
I have been interested in conservation work since college, where my studies focused on topics like human use of the environment, nature and society, environmental justice, and different conservation practices, both in the U.S. and globally. A study-abroad trip to South Africa brought me up close to many different conservation techniques being used. While in South Africa, classmates and I also studied the impacts of certain techniques on the surrounding rural communities and their access to traditionally used natural resources. This research really showed me how interconnected people and their natural environments truly are.
After graduation I searched for jobs and internships at national or state parks and at nonprofit organizations, even checking openings here at the Conservancy. Either the job market must have been competitive, or my timing may have been off, but despite my best efforts and countless applications, I could not find a position related to this field. Although conservation work was always in the back of my head, I began to look for any job I could get—and when that proved unsuccessful, I decided to go back to school for a master’s in geography.
It was in my master’s program where I was first exposed to the field of planning. Here I took several courses in planning and found that it really melded all my skills and interests. While in school, I was also approached by my local township, Chadds Ford Township, to help as an intern. This internship further exposed me to the field of planning. After my internships at the Township and at the Conservancy, I decided to pursue an additional master’s degree in urban and regional planning.
What aspects of your new job are you most excited about? And what do you find most challenging?
I am truly excited to make a difference in the communities where we work. It is comforting to know that protected landscapes I grew up enjoying will remain for generations to come, and I want to provide that same comfort to others. I am also excited to help provide spaces for people to enjoy and make memories, further enhancing their connections with their local landscape.
I think it will be challenging at times to be patient. Many planning projects can take years to come to fruition and I think it may be hard for me to wait when I am so passionate about a project.
As a longtime resident of Chadds Ford, what is it like to live here from a planning and conservation perspective?
As a fourth-generation Chadds Ford resident, pieces of my family history are closely interwoven with the landscapes protected by the Brandywine Conservancy. The house next to N. C. Wyeth’s studio, where my grandmother was born and raised, is still there; the hill across from Kuerner Farm, where my dad grew up sledding, became my favorite place to sled; and the river I loved to drift down as a child is still the place where many can relax on a hot summer day. Although all of Chadds Ford cannot remain unchanged, these protected landscapes will always be connected to my childhood memories.
Now that I am working here, I can see what happens behind the scenes to ensure that the character, culture and landscapes of communities are protected, and I am excited to help do this in other communities.
What did you study in school for your particular career path?
When I first went to college, I had so many interests and the only major I could find that encompassed everything was geography—literally the study of Earth and everything in it. I graduated from Penn State University with a BA in geography and minors in environmental inquiry; science, society and the environment in Africa; and international studies. I went on to get a post-baccalaureate certificate in geographic information systems (GIS). After a little break from school and a year-long volunteer trip around the world, I decided to go back yet again for a MS in Geography from West Chester University and a certificate in nonprofit administration. After my two internships with Chadds Ford Township and the Conservancy, I decided to add yet another degree to my pile and am now completing a dual master’s in urban and regional planning, also at West Chester University.
What advice would you give to current students who might also be interested in this type of career?
I would encourage current students to be patient and to seize every opportunity. It took me several years, and many dead-end jobs, to find the right path. Yet, without trying out different opportunities, I would have never ended up here. You never know where an opportunity will lead, so even if it isn’t your dream job, it might lead to one.