Getting involved helps you learn about yourself

When Elena Finelli says she likes to stay busy, she’s not kidding. The geology major’s involvement in JMU clubs and organizations— especially the budding Edible Food Forest Garden— has changed how she wants to make the world better.

Photo of Elena Finelli

Elena Finelli - Class of 2024

Major: Geography

Hometown: Clarkstown, New York

Concentration: Combined Environmental Conservation, Sustainability and Development and Applied Geographic Information Systems.

Minors: Environmental Studies, Italian

High School: Clarkstown North

Highlights: Returning to JMU for a one-year master’s program in Integrated Science and Technology; Will get a master’s from JMU and another from the University of Malta, with one of her semesters taking place in Malta; sees herself working in the environmental field with hopes of being outside a lot and also employing her GIS skills.

Q&A With Elena

How did you get involved with the food forest?

I did the volunteer planting day in 2021, and then I got an email about doing more volunteer work with Dr. Mikaela Schmitt-Harsh. So I had my first meeting with Dr. Mikaela, and she said we could pay you for the work and I said, OK, let's do this. I was going to just do it for free, but now it's my job to promote campus sustainability and I love it.

How many trees are we talking about?

We have almost 100 different trees with lots of different varieties. We have peach, pear, cherries, plums, apples, figs and some others. And even different varieties of each, so we have a couple different types of apples, and then we go into the shrubs, including lots of different varieties of berries.

Do the different varieties fit together well?

We have the trios design which is kind of common in food forestry. It is two fruit trees and then a nitrogen-fixing tree to help put nutrients back into the soil.


That sounds amazing.

And then for our most recent project, we're out in the greenhouse growing herbs for understory. It definitely helps with maintenance and it's more food for us, too. So we're growing things like beans, sage, mint, lavender and then some that aren’t all edible but qualify as understory shrubs as they help replenish the soil.

It sounds intricate.

The whole assortment of herbs and trees form guilds. That’s basically where one tree has a bunch of supporting plants under it and they kind of give each other nutrients—working off each other but not competing for nutrients on their own.

Do you use pesticides?

No. We have some tools that we use that protect the food forest from insects and pests, but they aren't toxic in any form. We steer clear of that.

Elena Finelli

Sounds like you’re serious about sustainable agriculture.

We are all about sustainable agriculture—caring for how the food that we grow to eat, and then also talking about food waste and the impact of locally grown foods. And we're trying to actually provide some of the herbs that we grow for the UREC cooking classes.

This all sounds wonderful.

We definitely want to integrate the food forest all around campus, and also for it just to be a place to hang out. We have an education center with tree stones and it's a really beautiful view of the hill and the forest. We want students to feel connected to the environment and be able to go out there and study or hang out with their friends or eat lunch.

Talk about your JMU clubs and organizations.

I’m President of Environmental Management Club. Student Advisor for Geography Club. Vice President of Gamma Theta Upsilon, which is the Geography Honors Society. Parliamentarian for Student Government Association. I'm in JMU Safe Rides. And then, I work at the Edible Forest Garden, and I also dabble with the Community Engagement Volunteer Center.

What else are you involved in at JMU?

This semester I'm leading an Alternative Spring Break trip, and I’m also on the planning committee the  Sustainable Shenandoah Valley’s Student Sustainability Summit that's going to be held at JMU.

Is that it?

And then I'm also in Climate Action Alliance of the Valley. I'm on the steering committee of that one as a JMU student rep.

So, how do you find time to be in all things?

My Google Calendar. The scheduling gets a little tricky, but it's all things I love and care about so I find the time for it all. If I didn't like it, I wouldn't do it. I like to keep busy and do things.

Your master’s program sounds amazing.

So this is the second year of the reconfiguring of it. It was a whole year in Malta. Now it's one semester at JMU and one semester in Malta. And I'll have two master’s, actually. One in Integrated Science and Technology and then one through the University of Malta in Environmental Management with a concentration that I choose.

Elena Finelli

Will that be your first time abroad?

Actually, I did four weeks Maymester of 2022 in Malta as part of the geography program and I loved it, so I'm excited to be going back.


More Profiles


Begin your JMU journey

Back to Top