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Woman standing in a stone arch with a bare leaf forest in the background.

Aisha Zungu

Mighty Oak Monday: Aisha Zungu

Major: Forest Health  
Hometown: Durban, South Africa
Class of ’26

Growing up in Durban, South Africa, Aisha Zungu and her siblings rambled through nature reserves with their mom. These outings inspired in Aisha a love of the natural environment. Later, as she took STEM-related courses, Zungu discovered a latent talent—and untapped passion—for the science behind the nature she treasures. “I was very surprised to find that I love organic chemistry,” she laughs. “I really like the structures of organic compounds.”

Zungu wants to be an interpretive park ranger because the job combines scientific knowledge with physical engagement in the environment. The broad range of majors at ESF made it the perfect place to prepare for her career. “I knew that if I didn't fit into forest health, I could choose another environmentally focused major,” she says.

Zungu also loves ESF because it’s enabled her to meet like-minded people who share her interests and values. “My friends and I love being outdoors, and we strive to reduce our environmental impact. When you're surrounded by people who do the same, you're more inclined to continue that type of behavior.”

She also has been able to earn experience through internships. Zungu just completed an experience with Holden Arboretum in Kirtland, Ohio, where she monitored bluebird trails, applied herbicides, identified plants, and helped manage invasive species. “I fell further in love with my passions and interests regarding the natural environment.”

But as a woman of color, Zungu knows that like-mindedness isn’t enough to overcome the barriers she faces in the predominantly white- and male-dominated STEM field. She found support in LSAMP,  the Louis Stokes Alliance of Minority Participation Program. Participants in LSAMP complete funded research under a mentor in their sophomore year. The program also offers team-building activities and strives to give historically underrepresented minority groups in STEM fields a head start and additional research support. “LSAMP was very impactful for me,” says Aisha. “It's very easy to feel outcasted, and being around other minorities made me feel less alone.” 

Winning a scholarship to ESF protects Zungu from student debt. But it has a much more profound meaning for her. “At one point, I wasn't even thinking of going into STEM because I thought it was too hard for me. Having this financial aid lets me know I’m meant to be here.”

Learn more about ESF’s Forest Health program.