ALTOONA, Pa. — Chastity Bey wasn’t supposed to be an environmental educator. She certainly wasn’t supposed to be a student at Penn State Altoona, let alone a graduate of the college. Yet, when she considers her current professional success and personal sense of fulfillment, she concedes that maybe it was all meant to be.
Growing up, Bey attended the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, a public school that focuses on STEM-related fields, where she concentrated on environmental energy. The classes she took under that umbrella piqued her interest in studying the field further, she said.
After graduation, she chose to study environmental systems engineering at Penn State New Kensington.
“I just had it stuck in my brain that engineering was my future, so I took that with me into college," Bey said. "It took me a little bit to realize that it wasn’t going to work out for me.”
The logical pivot was to environmental studies in general, but there was another stumbling block — Penn State New Kensington doesn’t have such a major, which is how Bey found herself transferring to Penn State Altoona and enrolling in its program.
“I don't know that I had a vision of what it would be like, but it turned out well," Bey said. "I made some really good friends, and the program was diverse. All my classes gave a lot of great insight and knowledge.”
Bey graduated in 2017 with a bachelor of arts in environmental studies and was hired at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, to which she’s been connected since high school. She participated in its Urban Eco-Steward program in 2010 and 2011, worked as a camp counselor during summer 2015, and completed her college internship there.
A non-profit organization, the Parks Conservancy is committed to restoring and maintaining the city’s park system to excellence. Projects and programs are conducted with respect for the environment, historic design, and the needs of the diverse region.
As the community nature educator, Bey teaches others about the beauty and importance of the environment. She plans Earth Month activities, school initiatives, and other youth-centric and outreach programming. Many functions take place at the Frick Environmental Center, where the conservancy is located, but Bey also travels to local community centers and schools.
For her commitment to her work, Bey has been the recipient of several awards and recognitions, two coming this fall alone.
"Pittsburgh Magazine" selected her as one of its 2023 40 Under 40 Honorees. The magazine shines a spotlight on those who work to make the region a better place. This year’s theme was “breaking barriers,” lauding individuals who are excelling in fields that have traditionally not been accessible to them and are working to help others succeed in those fields as well.
At 29, Bey is the youngest of this year’s "40 Under 40" recipients who were all honored at a dinner in November.
Bey also was chosen by Pittsburgh’s Get Involved Inc. as one of its 2023 Western PA Rising Stars awardees. This award recognizes young professionals in the non-profit, business and government sectors who dedicate their time and talent to community organizations and who are making a positive impact on their communities.
Past awards for Bey also include Pittsburgh’s Multiplying Good Changemaker Jefferson Award and the Incline’s Who’s Next Environmental and Energy Award.
“It's crazy. These awards keep popping up, and I didn’t even know I was being considered or had been nominated," Bey said. "I have a bit of imposter syndrome because I’m being recognized and people are seeing my work, and it’s like, ‘this is great, thank you, but I’m just doing what I do.’”
Carolyn Mahan, professor of biology and environmental studies at Penn State Altoona, had Bey in several of her classes and has kept in touch with her, even traveling to Pittsburgh for a visit and a tour of her office building.
“I'm incredibly proud of Chastity,” Mahan says. “She would be doing great work even if it weren’t acknowledged. But it's wonderful that it has been and in such a public setting. Not only does it bring recognition to Chastity herself, but it also brings recognition to the importance of environmental education and environmental advocacy.”
While these accolades are appreciated, what keeps Bey excited about her job, she said, are the connections she makes with the children in her programs and being the one to open their eyes to the value of healthy habitats and ecosystems and the relationship between humans and nature.
“When I was little, nobody came to my school to teach us about nature and sustainability or tell us we could have a career in those things," she said. "It’s really fulfilling to get kids excited about environmental studies and preservation.”
As Bey takes a moment to reflect on her academic and professional journey, she said she's pretty sure she would not be satisfied had she stuck it out with environmental engineering. She said she does sometimes wonder if she should try something new within the field, but nothing feels right to her, and besides, her life seems to be going in the right direction.
“Now that I'm thinking about who I am as an adult, as a person, I am happy, and I feel fulfilled," said Bey. "I feel like I’m doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing, exactly where I’m supposed to be doing it.”