Year of Graduation: 2008
Major(s): Environmental Studies Minor(s): Spanish
Current Position: Executive Director, Fundación Cordillera Tropical, Ecuador
Why did you choose to major in Environmental Studies?
Environmental issues were very important to me when I was applying to colleges, though I hadn't decided on a major when I started. By my sophomore year, the real attraction for me was the interdisciplinary nature of the Environmental Studies major. I could take classes in virtually all of my interests, across an eclectic set of disciplines and skills, and apply them to what I wanted to learn during my time at CSB/SJU. I have since spent several years as a Research Fellow employed in an academic science context, and felt that Gordy Brown's Ecology course and Jean Lavigne's GIS course have served me best. Now I run an organization that does research, education, extension work, and conservation negotiation, so I am literally using something learned in every ES course on a daily basis. Overall, it's the latitude we have to design our own internships and the interdisciplinary freedom to piece together electives as we see fit to suit our strengths that sets the CSB/SJU ES experience apart from other schools and/or majors.
Describe your internship experience while at CSB/SJU.
I won a scholarship from the North American Association for Environmental Education my sophomore year; by leveraging those contacts I made a pitch to a member of the Environmental Education faculty at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, for the summer months following my study abroad experience in Port Elizabeth. That faculty member was fantastic and gave me a great deal of leadership and latitude; things worked out tremendously for me, as I was most interested in environmental education as a potential career at the time. I contributed as a member of the organizing committee of the World Environmental Education Congress held in Durban, South Africa that summer, helped prepare one of the congress sessions, was a teaching assistant for an environmental studies summer-course for undergrad students from NYC, and co-authored a paper on environmental learning.
What other activities/experiences were you involved with while at CSB/SJU and how have they been helpful in your career?
I was a bit of an “extracurricular” junkie. I was a member of the Peer Resource Program starting at the end of my first year, and was employed by the Outdoor Leadership Center as of 2006. I was a Co-President of Campus Greens, and participated in Echo (later known as the Sustainability Alliance). I studied abroad in South Africa, and went on Alternative Break trips to Jonah House (MD/DC), Anathoth House (WI), Ghost Ranch (NM), and the Dominican Republic. I went on or led PRP or OLC trips to the Everglades (FL), Boundary Waters (MN), and Devil's Lake (WI), and co-guided a winter BWCA dogsledding trip with the Women's Center. I was a member of the Jazz Ensemble my first year, and continued participation in the Brass Choir throughout my CSB/SJU years. What did I think all these activities would contribute to my future? First, they kept me sane and rooted in what it means to live a well-rounded life, while many of them gave me tangible experience in environmental issues (development, justice, recreation, conservation, advocacy...). They also taught me discipline, leadership, resourcefulness, accountability, and idealism. In particular, I would add that the international components available at CSB/SJU (study abroad, alternative break trips, etc.) were and are powerful in shaping one's ability to work across lines of division in professional life - which is a major skillset needed for any career related to the environment.
What did you do immediately after graduation?
My first job after CSB/SJU was a Science Instructor and Naturalist position at the Murie Science and Learning Center in Denali National Park, Alaska. This was a seasonal position; I then went to Ecuador for a couple of months to volunteer for a foundation I had done some work for through a professor (Kristina Timmerman, Biology), while awaiting the start of my Peace Corps service. I left for Peace Corps-Guatemala the following January.
Describe your career path since your first job after graduation.
I served in Guatemala for 3 years in the environment sector assigned to the "Sustainable Community Tourism" track, a field directly related to my Environmental Studies Senior Thesis/Capstone project. I ended up mostly doing environmental education and community forest management consulting, and these experiences led me back to the US for a master´s in forest ecology. I came back to my home state of MN as a Research Fellow at the University of MN for ~2 years, then a Research Associate at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. In these university positions, I was involved in national-scale collaborative research, climate change adaptation extension work for practicing forest- and natural resource-managers, and had a hand in running the national ecological certification course for the federal officials who approve land management decisions across the US. In late 2016 I took the opportunity to move back to Ecuador when the Fundación Cordillera Tropical, the same Foundation I'd volunteered with in 2008 and kept in touch with those 8 years, hired me as its new Director. I'll be here working on biodiversity and water resource conservation and rural community engagement, in and around some of the world's most amazing tropical protected areas, until 2021.
Describe your current position including the most satisfying/rewarding parts as well as the challenges.
At current writing, I am fairly new in the position. I love that we as a Foundation get to try out any and all of the cutting-edge, innovate conservation ideas - carbon credits and offsets for environmental protection, Payments for Ecosystem or Watershed Services, sustainable community tourism, agricultural extension for reforestation, biodiversity mapping and enhancement, you name it. I have a fantastic staff, at present pretty small, but this makes us similar to many startups in that as a small staff we're more nimble and able to try our hand at a wide portfolio of approaches. One challenge is defining a long-term strategic plan for an organization, especially in the volatile context of a non-profit dependent on external (usually international competitive) funding, and what that means for ensuring my staff's job security.
What skills are important in your field?
Prompt and effective communication (written and oral), as well as being personable, are huge. The ability to keep many tasks/initiatives in the air at any given time, and consistently follow through on commitments, are also required of anyone in any leadership position. Empathy, discipline, and the abilities to articulate a shared vision and negotiate are critical especially in managing other people who work for you or who participate in your programs/projects. Technical skills that are pretty necessary in this field include ecological fieldwork experience; geospatial, statistical, and economic analysis; and how to construct management plans, useful monitoring protocols, and robust research/sampling designs.
What advice do you have for students who might be interested in your career?
For Environmental Studies in general: There's quite a bit of freedom within the ES major, which can feel like a detriment if students aren't proactive. It can also be an incredible advantage for those who are a little more strategic and thinking critically about how to craft their degree program. Complement ES with other academic or non-academic activities. Ask around within the department and with any other departments that interest you, regarding what courses to take. It's quite valuable to get more than just your principal academic advisor's input.
Regarding a career in conservation, or ecology research: Take analytical (science) classes. Get specific on something, if you've identified what motivates you - the environmental/conservation world is huge, and evidence that you are knowledgeable about something useful/interesting and specific goes a long way. To that end, get involved! Set yourself apart with the activities in which you partake, the groups you perhaps take the initiative to start or lead, or the experiences you seek out in other parts of the world. Write; the more of a paper trail you can leave, that demonstrates you've got some good ideas and analysis skills, the better. Network; contact me and other alums through the Career Services or Alumnae/ni offices. Develop mentor-mentee relationships with the faculty... and, develop gratitude to them and to everyone making amazing opportunities possible for you at CSB/SJU.