Shakirra Payne-Felder ’25 Blends Majors in English and Environmental Studies to Fuel Her Passion for Teaching

Shakirra Payne-Felder ’25 Blends Majors in English and Environmental Studies to Fuel Her Passion for Teaching

Academics, Internships, Testimonials

March 8, 2024

Shakirra Payne-Felder ’25 Blends Majors in English and Environmental Studies to Fuel Her Passion for Teaching Shakirra Payne-Felder '25

One of the advantages of a liberal arts education is the opportunity to study subjects that on the surface appear to have little in common, but in reality, complement one another and broaden a student’s base of knowledge to reflect their varied interests.

As a double major in English and environmental studies, Shakirra Payne-Felder ’25 personifies that love of learning across disciplines. “I knew I was going to pursue English when I got to Hollins,” she says, thanks to a high school class in which she got to immerse herself in creative writing. “That one class ignited my passion for writing,” she recalls, “and when I found out about the creative writing program at Hollins, I said, ‘Yes, that’s what I want to do.’”

Taking an Introduction to Environmental Studies class at Hollins opened up another world of possibilities for Payne-Felder. “I had a really hard time with environmental science back in high school. But I looked into the difference between ‘environmental studies’ and ‘environmental science’ after I got to Hollins and realized the former was humanities-focused with a sociological lens. So, I took a sociology and an environmental studies class my first year here and fell in love with both of them. I love it when you get to look at things from the perspective of human beings and understand the impact that we have.”

Payne-Felder wanted to immerse herself in both English and environmental studies, and she was delighted to discover it would be possible for her to pursue a double major in those fields. “Hollins encourages you to combine things if you are really interested in them, so I reached out to my advisor [Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Science Mary Jane Carmichael] and she said, ‘This is an amazing combination, and I will support you through it 110%. Let’s make this happen.’”

Gaining real-world experience to complement her majors became a priority for Payne-Felder, beginning with a paid summer internship following her sophomore year at Cognosante, a technology firm based in Falls Church, Virginia, that assists health care, civilian, and defense agencies deliver public services and programs. “I worked with the company’s ‘Growth Team,’ which oversees proposal requests,” she explains. “They really liked my writing capabilities and presentation skills, and it turned out to be an amazing opportunity.” Cognosante was so pleased with Payne-Felder’s work that they extended her internship into the fall of last year.

“I was a group leader during the Cognosante internship, and that helped grow my overall belief in my ability to make decisions,” she adds. “You had to be quick in your decision making and confident about those decisions.”

During this year’s January Short Term, Payne-Felder build upon that foundation through an internship with the Maymont Foundation, a historic estate and park located in Richmond, Virginia, that features a wildlife habitat, farm, and nature center. Community outreach and teaching are key components of Maymont’s mission, and Payne-Felder says she was drawn to an environmental education position they were offering for the month.

“My first year at Hollins, I worked at Mountain View Elementary School in Roanoke helping kids prepare for end-of-grade testing and building their math and reading comprehension skills. I’ve worked with kids pretty much all my life, and seeing their excitement at figuring out a problem on their own and learning something for themselves is amazing,” she says in explaining why she was passionate about working at Maymont. “I was ecstatic when I found out I got the position.”

At Maymont, Payne-Felder assisted the foundation’s day camps, which offered area children an alternative to standard day care while they were still out of school for winter break but whose parents had gone back to work after the holidays. They learned about birds and interacted with reptiles and farm animals during the camps, and she says she got invaluable experience not only with engaging children in the subject matter, but also in other crucial facets of teaching. “Since I was working with kindergarteners and first graders, there was lots of conflict resolution,” she laughs. “There were also times when I had to problem-solve. For example, when the weather was bad and we couldn’t go outdoors, I had to help come up with ideas to give the kids a good experience indoors. I was also part of planning sessions for the upcoming day camps that Maymont is holding through the spring and summer. It was busy but it was worth it. We had a great team.”

For Payne-Felder, the Maymont internship “solidified for me that, whether it’s working with smaller children or serving as a tenure-track professor, education is going to be somewhere in my future at some point in time. I love teaching people. I want to do that.”

Another personal breakthrough, she says, was that she “got a lot better in not feeling afraid to ask questions and ask for help. There’s a part of me that’s independent in trying to pursue something. If I know there’s a problem, I’m going to try and solve it myself because I’m very aware of people having a lot of their plates. Maymont helped me understand that you do have support, and to utilize that support. As a result, my collaboration and communication skills have grown, and I’m going to improve upon them further still.”

Payne-Felder says she wants to ultimately pursue a master’s degree in environmental studies and possibly another in English. “My English skills came in handy while working in the world of environmental education, so that’s something I think could be doable.” In the meantime, she’s focusing on opportunities for this summer. She plans to meet with Career and Life Design at Hollins and explore “the things that I am interested in and what assistance can I get in finding programs that line up with them. I know I want to branch out and get my hands dirty in other areas. I want to take the time to explore what’s out there while continuing to push myself and advocate for myself.”