Nature education serves as inspiration for Penn Hills woman



During her junior year in high school, Nyjah Cephas said she wouldn’t really have described herself as a “school kid.”

But when The Ellis School’s long-standing partnership with Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy brought her to Frick Park for a few stewardship days, something clicked.

“I could have some experiential learning and figure out the world around me,” said Cephas, 21, who grew up in Wilkinsburg before moving to Penn Hills in her teens. “Once I started making observations about the natural world? It opened up a whole new world for me.”

Cephas joined the conservancy’s Young Naturalists program, a five-week paid internship for high school students, where she learned even more about the natural world, and met scientists who discussed their careers and a love of nature that she began to see in herself.

“I started to realize that nature is somewhere that I can heal and where I don’t have to worry about systemic oppression,” she said. “Nature just keeps going.”

Cephas kept going as well.

“I went to college, and didn’t really know what I was doing, and then I got a call asking if I wanted to teach the (Young Naturalists) program,” she said.

That was February 2018, and she’s been part of the program ever since, going from a participant to one of two co-leaders running it. She has been accepted into AmeriCorps’ Public Allies program and her placement is right at the Frick Environmental Center, the same place that helped spark her curiosity about nature in the first place.

“Teaching was a definite change of perspective. But I’d experienced it, so it kind of gave me an advantage. All the things that were really valuable for me, I wanted to make sure I could implement for my students,” Cephas said.

Penn Hills woman finds inspiration in nature education
Nyjah Cephas, 21, wasn't sure what she wanted to do for a living. But a call from the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy's Young Naturalists program, which sparked her love of nature in high school, set her on the path to a career in nature education.

The covid-19 pandemic has forced the Young Naturalist program to go virtual, and Cephas has been trying to help students find nature in their neighborhoods.

“We had them pick a species, then go around and see if they find any connections with that animal in their neighborhood, whether their food source is present, whether they can adapt to being around people,” she said.

Once staff is back together on a regular basis, Cephas plans to shore up the edges of the Clayton Hill Trail that run through Frick Park.

“We’re going to be laying down logs and rocks along the side so the trail doesn’t get so muddy at times,” she said.

Cephas said she hopes she can inspire the same love of nature her predecessors inspired in her.

“Here, you can be really curious and ask the big ‘why’ questions about things,” she said. “That thread is running through everyone here, the people who’ve been here for 20 years and kids I meet for the first time.

“It’s a really cool community,” she said.

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, or via Twitter .