Finding Your Place


For Curtis Bennett, ’09 Environmental Science and Policy graduate and AGNR Alumni Board vice president, discovering the “why” for his career path was only part of the journey that led him to his current role at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md. Figuring out his “what” proved to be perhaps the most challenging but essential part.

“My ‘why’ was always the connection I had with the outdoors,” said Bennett. “Any time that I spent as a kid with wildlife or observing wildlife, I felt this sense of relaxation, a rush of energy, and it was truly a magical experience.”

It’s no wonder that Bennett enrolled at UMD in the Veterinary Medicine program. While he clearly had the passion for this field of study, something wasn’t completely clicking for him. Thanks to an inspired conversation with his mentor, Mark Varner, professor emeritus in Animal Science, Bennett soon found a new path.

“Dr. Varner sat me down and said, ‘Life is never easy, but it becomes that much easier when you are in the space that comes natural to you,” said Bennett. At the time, UMD had just created the Wildlife Ecology & Management program in Environmental Science and Policy. Bennett transferred to the new program as part of the first class of students, and he instantly felt at home.

But it took a lot more than simply finding the right field of study. For Bennett, it took constant involvement beyond the classroom. Even before he started his time as a Terp, Bennett had worked as a naturalist for the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, where he gained initial experience and exposure to environmental education, community engagement, and wildlife research.

After graduating from UMD, he went from being a Terp to a Blue Hen, and continued his environmental education while earning a Master of Science in wildlife conservation at University of Delaware, where he crafted his public engagement skills while also getting to develop a close connection with river otters through his research.

Despite his brief departure from the state of Maryland, Bennett’s beloved home was never far from his mind.

Upon completing his studies at Delaware, he set his sights on returning to the place where he gained so much of an appreciation for the outdoors. It wasn’t long after returning to Maryland before he heard of opportunities at the National Aquarium, and he immediately jumped at the chance.

“It’s so surreal when I think about it,” said Bennett. “I can remember visiting the National Aquarium with
my family as a kid. As a naturalist, I remember taking summer camp groups there for field trips. To have the opportunity to work there, I’ve come full circle.”

Bennett’s passion to take his work to another level at the aquarium didn’t stop with his first position. Thanks to his dedication and efforts, he was promoted to become the aquarium’s first ever director of conservation community engagement, and most recently in 2019, director of equity and community engagement.

“For as long as I can remember, principles of diversity, inclusion, equity, and environmental justice have always been centered as part of my personal and professional life,” said Bennett. “When I think about the intentional application of these principles in conservation engagement, it starts with active listening to understand, meeting people where they are, building transformational relationships, and co-creating experiences and opportunities that are most meaningful and relevant to our audiences.”

In this respect, Bennett has been able to apply elements of his personal philosophy to the mission of the aquarium.

“At the aquarium, we recognize that we can’t achieve our vision to change the way humanity cares for our ocean planet without first grounding our work in the principles of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice,” he said. “It’s important to remember that this is life’s work, and we must all do our part as individuals, institutions, and industries to intentionally and consistently commit ourselves to learning, growing, and applying these principles to what we do and how we do it.”

By Andrew Muir