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New facilities dedicated

George Mason University students Kendall Bilbrey, 20, left, and Tejas Vhagwat, 21, walk outside the G.T. Halpin Family Learning and Living Community building. Rich Cooley/Daily

Adrienne Mars, left, director of Mars Foundation, and Gerald T. Halpin, president/CEO of West Group Management LLC, chat after the ribbon- cutting ceremony at the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation's new academic, residential, and dining facilities in Front Royal. They are financial supporters of the project. Rich Cooley/Daily

Dennis Kelly, left, director of the National Zoo, and Eva Pell, center, the zoo’s undersecretary for science, chat with supporter Clinton Kelly, of Bethesda, Md., prior to the dedication of the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation’s new academic, residential and dining facilities in Front Royal on Thursday. Rich Cooley/Daily

Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation marks opening

By Kim Walter

FRONT ROYAL - A large group of conservation leaders and students gathered Thursday morning to celebrate the opening of the G.T. Halpin Family Learning and Living Community at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal.

While academic programs have been offered at the institute, the new living quarters, dining facility and academic center can now cater to up to 60 students through the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation.

Ground was broken for construction of the complex in 2011, and the first students from George Mason University arrived at the beginning of the fall 2012 semester. The 16-credit programs are offered on a one-semester basis, but they aren't just for students studying biology, wildlife or other environmentally related fields. The interdisciplinary program also welcomes students with backgrounds in journalism, business and economics who want to learn more about conservation biology.

Steven Monfort, director of the institute, spoke during the ceremony about the school's purpose.

"We hope to share science with everybody, and inspire people into action," he said. "This facility is dedicated to training the future generation of conservation leaders, and in turn cultivate and inspire the belief that they can make a difference."

While the school received a large donation toward the project, it still isn't fully funded, and the Smithsonian is looking for financial support to complete that portion of the program.

All the new buildings in the complex were built to LEED Gold Standard, and utilize geothermal energy, green roofs, a rain garden and a walking campus. The campus also is open to 3,200 acres for hands-on research.

"When it comes to the study of conservation biology, this is truly a unique platform," Monfort said.

Students from schools other than GMU are invited to participate in a number of programs the facility offers, which can result in a certificate in applied conservation. Workshops and community-based training courses also will be held at the complex.

Kendall Bilbrey, a 20-year-old senior at GMU is attending her final semester at the conservation school. She said upon arrival that she felt honored to be able to participate in such a unique program, which is already opening up a number of networking opportunities for her to pursue following graduation.

"This isn't like normal college," she said. "Part of the day we're in the classroom or lab, but a majority of the time we're out in the field, actually doing research that matters and getting experience that you can't find anywhere else."

Another GMU senior, 21-year-old Tejas Bhagwat, is studying biology with a minor in environmental studies.

"I try to explain to my friends all the different things I'm doing here, but most of them just don't get it," he laughed. "It's so much more than science and animals."

The complex is home to more than 20 endangered species, all of which are studied by different students.

Bhagwat admitted that participation in the program takes a certain mindset.

"You have to be passionate about conservation to some degree ... and it's hard not to be when you're here," he said.

Both students were taken aback by the amount of writing involved in the program, but said it was a good subject to become familiar with, as it helps them build resumes.

"I now have connections with different nonprofits, as well as zoos across the country and around the world," Bilbrey said. The academic center features one virtual learning room, in which classes are recorded and broadcast to students across the nation and as far away as Chile.

"This isn't just about Front Royal ... we're connected to the world," she said.

Bhagwat said his parents were jealous of him when they dropped him off at the start of the semester.

"We have everything we need right here ... and we go into town a lot," he said.

BIlbrey enjoys the downtown area of Front Royal, which she had never experience before.

"Plus Skyline Drive is right there," she said. "The location definitely lends itself to the important research taking place here ... it's just awesome to be a part of it."

Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or kwalter@nvdaily.com

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