Inaugural Wallenberg Fellow to study conservation practice in Kenya

President Mary Sue Coleman presents Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy senior Zachary Petroni with the first-ever $25,000 Raoul Wallenberg Fellowship, to study conservation governance in Kenya. The fellowship award, announced at Spring Commencement, is presented to a graduating senior who demonstrates qualities including exceptional promise and capacity for public service. Photo by Paul Jaronski, Michigan Photography.

The first-ever $25,000 Raoul Wallenberg Fellowship will be awarded to graduating Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy senior Zachary Petroni, for his plan to study conservation governance in Kenya.

President Mary Sue Coleman announced the award, among the largest for a graduating senior, at 2013 Spring Commencement ceremonies.

“Because he best exemplifies the commitment to human rights embodied by Raoul Wallenberg, Zach is the inaugural recipient of the University of Michigan’s new Wallenberg Fellowship,” Coleman said. “He wants to better understand the connections between human rights and environmental conservation, and the university is going to help him with his goals.”

Wallenberg’s selflessness and commitment drove Petroni to action, he said.

“The greatest lesson I’ve learned from Wallenberg is that one person can change the world for the better, regardless of his or her background, if only they are willing to put others first,” Petroni said.

Wallenberg earned a degree in architecture in 1935. As a Swedish diplomat, he is credited with saving 100,000 lives during the Holocaust. The fellowship in his name is presented to a graduating senior who demonstrates exceptional promise, character, accomplishment and capacity for public service. The grant gives a graduating senior the ability to carry out independent explorations, projects or activities anywhere in the world.

Petroni said that he thinks every day about what he can do to honor the legacy of Wallenberg through his fellowship, and later in life. “I was given a privileged opportunity to receive a world-class college education, and now possess a unique set of skills as a result of my time at the university. With this, I feel it is my duty to be an ally to, and serve, others,” he said.

Petroni became aware of the conservation issues in East Africa while traveling in Kenya in 2012 as part of a study abroad program. He learned that conservation initiatives across East Africa that help wildlife to flourish caused Moses, an indigenous Maasai now in his mid-30s, to be beaten by rangers repeatedly when he was a boy. His transgression was herding his family’s cattle in a newly protected wildlife area.

Today, Moses is an activist committed to helping his neighbors through developing public infrastructure. He rejects most conservation efforts as corrupt. But James, another Maasai in his mid-30s, believes conservation can preserve wildlife and secure economic development. He works as a liaison between a conservancy and local landowners.

After hearing their stories first-hand and learning of the issues involved, Petroni compiled his wide-ranging plan to study conservation governance in Kenya.

Petroni was one of four seniors nominated by their school or college and interviewed by the Wallenberg Fellowship Selection Committee. The others were Tessa Adzemovic, LSA; Gregory Ewing, College of Engineering; and Carlos Pompeo, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

“The committee was deeply impressed by the exceptional accomplishments and promise of each of these students, by the high degree of thoughtfulness of their proposed projects and explorations and by their commitment to make a difference in the world,” said John Godfrey, assistant dean for international education, Rackham School of Graduate Studies. “This was a heartening affirmation that the spirit of Raoul Wallenberg is alive in his university.”

Petroni’s project is designed to explore the ways in which different approaches to conservation governance in Kenya influences conservation outcomes for local populations. “There exist opportunities to learn how present conservation efforts engage conservation stakeholders, such as James, Moses and others from communities impacted by conservation, in order to preserve biodiversity,” Petroni said.

Bilal Butt, assistant professor at the School of Natural Resources and Environment, a faculty affiliate of the African Studies Center and Petroni’s project adviser, says that a desire to promote just causes has been embedded in Petroni’s career to date and will continue into the future.

“He is deeply committed to understanding and telling the stories of indigenous peoples who have been deeply affected by well-intentioned but coercive conservation practices,” he said. 


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