Name: Ashley Phillips
Major: Environmental Studies
Why did you choose to major/focus in Environmental Studies?
I've always been drawn to nature, and spending time outdoors certainly seems to be a commonality within the ES Department. In fact, a reason I toured CSB/SJU was a photograph that advertised students attending class on a lake raft. But while learning outdoors initially sparked interest in the major, I did not decide on ES until nearly junior year. Understanding the interdisciplinary study combined with brilliant professors really tipped the scale, and by senior year my passion for the major soared off the charts.
What activities, courses, and groups that you were involved in on campus did you find most beneficial when applying for jobs/school? What skills were taught that got you to where you are today?
While I enjoyed activities in the Abbey Arboretum, I also played in music ensambles, intramural soccer teams, the Fruit at the Finish Triathalon, and held leadership positions for campus cultural organizations to foster togetherness among students with diverse backgrounds. I also ran for CSB Senate my junior year and served as Sustainability Representative- a fantastic opportunity to become engaged with councils and committees related to a variety of initiatives on campus. The stars aligned that semester so I concurrently took a Sustainability Workshop course and attended an Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education conference. The following semester I studied abroad in South Africa and fell in love with the sunsets, wildlife, marine biology labs on the beach, and teaching/learning from children in townships as a part of the program's service component. I was also active in the McCarthy Center for Public Policy anf Civic Engagement and attended the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP22).
All these activities built a variety of career skills from facilitation and collaboration to persistence and positivity (two P's to remember when applying for jobs or writing 20+ page papers). Any activity, if passionate, can lead to skills becoming stronger and/or weaknesses turning into attributes. Importantly, reading and writing courses like Colloquium and Capstone provided an opportunity to fly with a research topic tailored to my interests. Simply: reading and writing can land you a job, but only can the exploration of your passions lead you to the right job. Even one class/activity can change the course of the future.
What did you do immediately after graduation?
I was attracted to the public service mission of the federal government, and as a part of the Washington, D.C. Summer Study Program, junior year I interned in the executive branch for the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Secretary in the Office of Environmental Policy and Compliance with the Natural Resource Management Team. I mostly worked with the National Environmental Policy Act, but also coordinated with DOI's agencies, (National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Reclamation, Bureau of Indian Affairs, etc.). There were also occasional Friday field trips to places like the Supreme Court, Library of Congress, and a national wildlife refuge!
After graduation I returned to Washington, D.C. and worked for the Bureau of Land Management's Natural Resource Division as an Environmental Protection Specialist in their direct hire authority internship program. It was neat to be a part of an interdisciplinary team and assist a land law examiner with litigation, including a case near the Boundary Waters. One of my favorite days was slipping into jeans and heading out to a BLM wild horse adoption event! The agency has significant management responsibilities due to its multiple-use and sustained yield mandate for public lands.
I came to a crossroads the end of that summer. Since my interest in environmental law continued to strengthen, I decided to run with it. Following BLM, I accepted a research internship with the Environmental Law Institue (nonpartisan, non-profit organization in Washington, D.C.) where I gained further insight into international and humans rights law, climate law, and a variety of research areas alongside attorneys, editors, and scientists. My favorite project was helping draft an environmental rule of law report with the United Nations Environment Program.
Next, I briefly interned on Capitol Hill with the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources! It was fascinating to gain insight into [environmental] politics next to the Press Team and Legal Counsel while attending hearings. Generally, committee offices deal little with constituent requests but are at the center of legislative activity. The ENR Committee goes back to 1816 and has distinguised itself as one of the most bipartisan in the Senate, having jurisdiction over much of Interior and Energy Departments.
Then I accepted a job working for a Senator from my home state- much of the experience remains indescribable. Not only did I witness first-hand political processes regarding a variety of issues, but I also experienced both sides of the aisle on the politcal spectrum (which is rare). Politics can be divisive, but if one can move past the "them vs. us" it's a noble field that affects everything, including the environment.
If it differs, what are you currently doing and how did your career path lead you there?
I moved to northern California for a permanent position with BLM as a Planning and Environmental Specialist with the Eagle Lake Field Office and I love the job! It's a mix of responsibilities: policy/law interpretation, team leadership, outdoor field work, public involvement/collaboration, and analysis for a variety of programs (fire, recreation, forestry, realty, wildlife, range, wild horses, etc.). Plus, every week is an adventure in the West!
While some opportunities seem to land in the lap, there is still a path that led there. For this job in particular, my senior thesis played a large role. I completed my research on the National Environmental Policy Act (the law my current day-to-day work revolves around). In short, I analyzed the historical and contemporary implementation of public participation in the Enviornmental Impact Statement (a requirement of NEPA) compared to Congressional intent for the law. It took a while to commit to this research topic, and while I was surprised to find myself dismissing more "fun" topics, in hindsight I think my choice was revealing of an underlying interest- an interest that further stepped into light following graduation. Pay attention to your topic of choice for assignments, as that choice may be telling.
What advice do you have for current students?
If considering graduate school, I will share something an experienced professional told me- wait before committing to a program. While there can be reasons to go right away, taking time can be valuable in ways that remain unforseen as an undergrad. Plus, post-grad life is exciting! If you have a sense of adventure, perhaps follow that before diving back into the coursework. And careful not to overlook internships in that time, as one could be a foot in the door to an excellent organization! Internships also allow you to test the waters to gain clarity on where you'd like to land a job.
As you explore careers, keep your vision wide by remaining open to possibilities before narrowing your focus. Remember that almost any extracurricular activity or academic course can no doubt contribute to a career. Whether it be the thought of taking a challenging class or applying for a competitive position, go for it! No matter the hurdle, you might learn you can jump higher than you think. Ultimately, it is that choice to jump - not just a grade or offer letter - that reflects who you are. In the case you could ever use a little career direction, in addition to your professors, one invaluable resource is networking with professionals. You can connect to an ES alum, too, as we are always here you help you on your way.
If you fancy reading and writing, perhaps consider a path in environmental policy/law/politics/journalism. I appreciated my science classes, felt at home outdoors, and certainly did not envision working in a city for a year. However, there are meaningful ways to channel your ES skills towards policy to do good for society. At the end of the day, my support for science, desire to help people, and outdoor shoes are the roots to my career; sometimes it helps to step into new territory and wear the suit to convey a message.
I would also suggest reading the news. From legislative updates to the latest scientific reports, many local and global current events relate to ES. Multiple sources is best. Remember to listen to others- even if an opposing view- to foster discussion and better understand an argument.
Lastly: live, laugh, learn, love! Do not let the uncertainty of the future, or even the excitement if you do have an idea, minimize a moment. Set goals, but make memories with your friends, bask in the beauty outside, and enjoy your coursework as an ES student! What you learn from class is a valuable take-away from your time at CSB/SJU.