The University of Lynchburg’s Claytor Nature Center has a new director. Jennifer Wills, who holds degrees in biology, law, and natural resources, will start on June 1. She replaces interim director Dr. Laura Henry-Stone.
Claytor encompasses 491 acres of forests, streams, and fields in Bedford County about 25 miles from Lynchburg’s campus. The land and facilities, including Belk Observatory and Cloverlea Farmhouse, are used for student and faculty research, as well as community education and recreation.
“I’m so pleased to welcome Jennifer to the Hornet family,” Provost Dr. Allison Jablonski said. “Her expertise is just what we need as we delve into the many possibilities at Claytor. I’m also immensely grateful to Dr. Henry-Stone for an amazing job steering the ship in the interim.”
Dr. Mike Coco, associate dean of sciences and professor of mathematics, led the search committee that selected Wills.
“Jennifer brings an impressive education and relevant work experience to this position,” Coco said. “With her background in environmental law, work in the nonprofit sector, and management and leadership expertise, Jennifer is well-suited to help the Center achieve its mission of environmental education and stewardship.
“The next chapter in Claytor’s story will be characterized by a strategic vision, enthusiastic leadership, and a passion for the relevance of nature in everyone’s life.”
Coco said he’s also grateful to Henry-Stone, an environmental sciences and sustainability professor and the University’s sustainability director, for serving as the interim Claytor director this past year.
“In this role, she went well beyond my expectations,” Coco wrote in a campuswide email announcing the news.
“Laura made tremendous efforts in every area of the Center, anything from helping to spread mulch to revising budgets, negotiating with government agencies, and making strategic decisions regarding staff structure and programming.
“I applaud her dedication to this challenge and her immediate impact in this short-term role.”
Wills envisions Claytor Nature Center as a “top nature destination for students and the general public” and said what excites her most about the job is “the impact it can have on students and the public .
“The power of nature is often underestimated. Through research opportunities and programming, those who visit will have a greater understanding and appreciation for nature and this can have positive ripple effects.
“I envision people of all ages and backgrounds visiting Claytor, taking a break from their screens and the hustle of daily life to relax and recharge in nature, experiencing something new through programming or hearing special guests discuss their areas of expertise.”
Her short-term goals are simple.
“I want to learn as much as I can while moving things forward,” Wills said. “A big part of that will be listening to stakeholders about their interests in Claytor. Over the course of several months, I want strategic planning to be underway.
“And in the course of a year — or two — I want Claytor to be known across the region, so that when I ask whether someone has heard of the Claytor Nature Center, the answer is ‘Yes and we have plans to visit.’
Claytor should also be a “key part of the student experience,” she added.
“Whether it’s team building and leadership development, a social event venue, taking care of their well-being or participating in research, I hope that every student has the opportunity to visit Claytor multiple times over the course of their University careers.”
Wills holds an undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Louisville, a law degree from the University of Kentucky College of Law, and a master’s degree in natural resources, with a focus in leadership for global sustainability, from Virginia Tech.
She spent 16 years as an attorney at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, taught in the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability at Virginia Tech, and formed a nature-based professional leadership coaching and consulting business.
Most recently, she was the chair of the board of directors at Camp Kum-Ba-Yah in Lynchburg, Virginia, and program manager at the Central Virginia Land Conservancy.