Paying it Forward and Giving Back to the Nicholas School: An Alum’s Story

Chandler (Chan) Smith’s journey from an environmentally conscious undergrad at Duke to a pioneer in environmental management is a testament to his passion for the field and his commitment to giving back to the community that helped shape his future. Chan graduated with a BA in 1972, just before embarking on a transformative experience in the newly established Master of Environmental Management (MEM) program at Duke’s School of Forestry.

“When I was an undergrad from 1968-72, there was no specific major focused on the environment,” Chan recalls. His interest in environmental issues led him to the MEM program, initiated in 1972-73, and he proudly enrolled in its second class a year later. Dr. Jim Wuenscher’s (former Director of the Duke Environmental Center) influence was crucial in convincing the university to offer this degree, allowing Chan to pursue his passion for environmental issues.

Chandler (Chan) Smith, BA’72, MEM’75

Reflecting on his time at Duke, Chan vividly remembers a pivotal moment in 1974-75 when the School of Forestry evolved into the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (F&ES). This positive change was met with resistance when the university proposed closing F&ES for cost-saving reasons. The collective voice of students and faculty, both within the school and university, prevailed, saving F&ES and paving the way for its growth into what is now the Nicholas School.

Over the years, Chan has maintained life-long connections with his classmates and peers. Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, he attempted to organize a reunion for F&ES alumni from 1973-75 in 2020. Plans for that fell through, but he does hope to try again in 2025.

Chan’s commitment to giving back to Duke is exemplary. “I was fortunate to receive a full scholarship for my MEM and also to have a job as a teaching assistant,” he says. “By giving back, I want to make sure students now, and in the future, have financial support.”

Since graduation, he has been a regular contributor to the Nicholas School Annual Fund and other areas at Duke. He has also volunteered for reunions. In 2018, he made a legacy gift through a qualified charitable distribution (QCD) to establish an endowment in his parents’ names to support Nicholas School operations. His father, Richard Chandler Smith MF’47, DF’50, and mother, Mary E. M. Smith, BS’49 (Nursing), inspired Chan’s deep connection to the university.

In his professional journey, Chan began working on environmental impact assessments, recognizing the value of remote sensing data. His career evolved as he transitioned to producing remote sensing data and geographic information systems (GIS) services. He was part of the Ball Aerospace team that helped start-up Digital Globe (now MAXAR), one of the first successful satellite imaging companies.

Chan later served as V.P. of Special Projects for COM DEV International, a Canadian Company, where he helped develop the U.S. market for COM DEV subsidiary exactEarth, producing satellite-based maritime information. Users of exactEarth’s information included the maritime industry, as well as government agencies responsible for maritime safety and security. Many of its applications were related to protecting sensitive maritime environments and sustainable fisheries.

Chan’s advice for current students and recent grads interested in environmental management echoes his career experiences. “Be nimble intellectually,” he advises. In a field where technologies evolve rapidly, he emphasizes the importance of not overspecializing, encouraging individuals to have diverse training to adapt to emerging technologies and applications.

Chan’s story is one of resilience, commitment, and a deep-rooted love for the environment, reflecting the spirit of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

TAGS: Giving Story

About the author

Julia Vail

Asst. Director, Communications & Donor Relations, Nicholas School of the Environment