Vassar alumna Elizabeth Putnam ’55 receives the 2010 Presidential Citizens Medal at White House ceremony, August 4, 2010.


Vassar College alumna’s student inspiration comes full circle.

POUGHKEEPSIE, NY—On August 4 in a ceremony at the White House, President Barack Obama awarded Student Conservation Association (SCA) founder and Vassar College alumna Elizabeth Cushman Titus Putnam ’55 the 2010 Presidential Citizens Medal for “performing exemplary deeds of service for her country and fellow citizens.” [To watch the ceremony, click here.]

Putnam launched the American conservation service movement more than 50 years ago with the founding of the Student Conservation Association (SCA) in 1957. She is the first conservationist to receive the Citizens Medal, the nation’s second-highest civilian award, since its creation in 1969. She was among 13 recipients honored at a White House ceremony on August 4.

“Serving nature is among the most important and rewarding callings humankind can ever know,” Putnam stated. “I am grateful to President Obama and humbled by this honor. I share it with all the young women and men of the Student Conservation Association, whose hands-on service protects our public lands and lifts our people’s hearts.”

The Citizens Medal is second only to the Presidential Medal of Freedom among U.S. civilian prizes. Previously, Putnam received President Ronald Reagan’s Volunteer Action Award, the Cornelius Amory Pugsley Medal for contributions to public parks, the Rachel Carson Leadership Award, and this June, the Spirit of Vassar award from the Alumnae and Alumni of Vassar College (AAVC), among many other honors.

“While most senior theses (including mine) sit on a shelf collecting dust, Liz Cushing Titus Putnam ’55 brought hers to life by creating the Student Conservation Association. Fifty-five years later, Liz, her thesis, and the SCA continue to make a difference,” stated Patricia Duane Lichtenberg ’90, AAVC Executive Director. “Liz is, indeed, the personification of a Vassar education and her fellow alumnae/i congratulate her on this well-deserved honor.”

As Lichtenberg mentioned, the original idea for the SCA was outlined in geology major Putnam’s Vassar senior thesis, where she conceived of a program that would be a modern day version of the 1930’s Civilian Conservation Corps: to enlist student volunteers to assist with upkeep at the national parks. Aided by colleague and fellow Vassar alumna Martha Hayne Talbot ’54, Putnam secured the interest and support of officials in the National Park Service and the first SCA volunteers arrived at Grand Teton and Olympic National Parks in 1957. This program was seen to be benefit both students, the environment, and the national parks, where surging visitation rates had outpaced maintenance budgets.

In a recent speech at Vassar when she accepted the “Spirit of Vassar” award from the college, Putnam noted that: “My faculty advisor, Dr. A. Scott Warthin, Jr., then Chairman of the Vassar Geology Department, played a critical role in my student life. Without his vision, assistance and tenacity I might not have been able to realize my dream – and there might never have been an SCA! His faith in and support of a young person’s potential to make a difference made all the difference for me as I developed my senior thesis, ‘Proposal on a Student Conservation Corps.’”

This summer Putnam’s inspiration has come full circle as SCA interns have, for the first time, lent a hand at the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve, working with the preserve manager to protect the land and promote its use as an educational resource.

In her speech at Vassar, Putnam noted that the SCA is about “forging connections to the earth, constructing bonds to one another, and building the next generation of conservation leaders. Over the years, in partnership with the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and other federal, state and local resource management agencies, SCA participants across the United States have helped restore landscapes ravaged by wildfires and floods, protect endangered species, and conserve urban green spaces. In fact, as SCA continues to innovate, it is the leader in engaging often-underrepresented urban youth in conservation service and green job training in dozens of cities across the country. And to think that the seed for all of this started here at Vassar!” [To watch or read the text of Elizabeth Putnam’s June 2010 address at Vassar College, see]

“Liz Putnam is both a giant and pioneer in the conservation field,” states SCA Chair Jane Goedecke. “Her vision helped seed what we now call ‘national service.’ She recognized young people as a powerful solution to our country’s growing ecological stresses. And today, with so many children disconnected from nature, Liz’s SCA is more relevant than ever.”

SCA pursues its mission of “building the next generation of conservation leaders” by engaging thousands of high school, college and graduate students in conservation service each year. The only national organization of its kind, SCA places interns and volunteers in all 50 states, from urban communities to national parks and forests. Today, more than half of SCA’s 60,000 alumnae/i remain active conservationists in their careers and communities; the National Park Service alone estimates up to 12% of its workforce can trace their professional roots to SCA. In addition, SCA has served as the blueprint for numerous other eco-service initiatives including the Department of the Interior’s Youth Conservation Corps, dozens of Volunteers in Parks (VIP) programs, and myriad state and local conservation corps.

In addition to national parks, SCA members serve sites within the US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, US Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies, hundreds of state parks, and green spaces in dozens of major cities. SCA’s Milwaukee program was recently named by the U.S. Conference of Mayors as one of America’s six “best practices in green jobs for youth.”

With the formal title of Founding President, Putnam is an active ambassador for SCA and a constant source of inspiration to its members, staff, and partners. She resides with her husband, Bruce, in Shaftsbury, VT.

Since 1957, the Student Conservation Association (SCA)’s hands-on practice of conservation service has helped to develop new generations of conservation leaders, inspire lifelong stewardship, and save the planet. SCA is a non-profit headquartered in Charlestown, NH and maintains regional offices in Boise, ID, Oakland, CA, Pittsburgh, PA, Seattle, WA, and Washington, D.C. For more information, visit

Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.

Posted by College Relations Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Vassar alumna Elizabeth Putnam ’55 receives the 2010 Presidential Citizens Medal at White House ceremony, August 4, 2010.

Student Conservation Association