Young sustainability leaders reveal their career success secrets
Back-to-school season has arrived. Whether it be rising first-years or returning undergraduates and graduates, students are seeking methods to further their academic and career endeavors.
Sustainability degrees are not a commonality on all campuses, and the college path for those interested in this career field is often less clear-cut than more popular choices such as pre-med, pre-law or business. But that variety of voices and backgrounds may be the beauty of a career in sustainability.
I asked young leaders in the field — specifically, some of our GreenBiz 30 under 30 honorees— about their higher-education experience, and what advice they have for rising college students who are interested in the intersection of business and sustainability.
What courses did you take in college that continue to help you today?
Christina Copeland — manager, Disclosure Services at CDP
I would recommend taking any classes that will give you tangible skills, such as a class on coding for websites or using InDesign. Depending on the work you want to do, college also can be a great time to take the LEED exam and have those credentials to put on your resume.
If your college also has a business school, ask if you can take a class or two there. When I did my undergraduate work, there weren’t courses focused on corporate sustainability (such as greenhouse-gas and water accounting, supply chain transparency), but at the business school there were MBA classes with a sustainability focus.
During college, I knew nothing about sustainability. I studied business law and entrepreneurship at Boston University. When I learned about sustainability after college, I got a masters degree in sustainability studies from Ramapo College.
I would encourage people to take classes around psychology, persuasion and marketing. We have to sell sustainability in a way to get others engaged and encourage them to change their habits and mindsets.
At Georgetown, they offered a class called "The Problem of God." It was a required course on philosophy and theology that, at the onset, I was dreading. I had never been a religious person, so the idea of faith and life beyond reason was never something I paid much attention to.
But throughout the course, the professor re-defined faith as being about the ultimate questions of the human condition, where reason is beyond itself, and truths cannot be confirmed or validated. Essentially, they defined faith as your commitment to seeking, looking and questioning. It inspired in me what it means to "live the question."
I was a chemistry major in undergraduate, and beyond any doubt my education regarding environmental chemistry helps me greatly — it’s the foundation of technical knowledge that everything I worked toward in sustainability is built on. I strongly believe that all students need a challenge or "tough love" course that pushes them outside of their area of comfort, knowledge and confidence.
For me, this was physical chemistry — no answers were handed to me despite the utter difficulty of the material (think Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle applied to chemistry). "What do you think?" was a common response to questions. I fought to achieve every small success in the course. The tools that I gained to help myself through problems and persevere with a "Well, that didn’t work; let’s try something else," resilient attitude serve me in my professional life.
What extracurricular activities or programs did you participate in that helped your career?
I was elected as the president of the student body at Columbia University. This gave me the platform to reach out on behalf of students to various companies, invite them to talk on sustainability, thus increasing my network connection within the field. Also was a part of Net Impact and was involved in a lot of social impact projects outside the classroom.
During my undergraduate studies, I participated on the University of Central Florida Student Sustainability Alliance, a volunteer group of students selected by the university president to help develop the climate action plan for UCF. This gave my great knowledge in teamwork, strategic planning and collaboration throughout campus departments.
Through this experience, I also started a student organization called IDEAS For UCF, an interdisciplinary environmental group working to develop and implement solutions to achieve UCF's climate action goals. Over the years we started several programs, including on-campus recycling programs, energy competitions in the dorms called "Kill-A-Watt," the UCF bike-share program, habitat restorations and even developing and installing 107KW of solar PV on campus.
Today, this student organization has evolved into an international 501c3 nonprofit called IDEAS For Us, and has expanded into a network of environmental groups at universities, K-12 schools, and communities in more than 24 countries.
I participated in a couple of student climate action groups which helped me build confidence around environmental and climate activism. I learned the issues, found my voice and learned how to build alliances with diverse stakeholders.
I also worked in the Office of Sustainability during all four years of college. It is valuable to build professional experience as a student, and I did so by presenting new programs to the college’s administration, developing a course on environmental leadership, and building a relationship with my supervisor who’s served as a long-time mentor.
I was very involved with Whitman College's sustainability program throughout my college career. I was active in the campus environmental clubs and ended up working with the United Nations as the UNEP Regional Youth Representative for North America. In that role, I was able to travel to sustainable development conferences all over the world and gain a better understanding of the intersection between environmentalism and poverty.
In founding Kuli Kuli, I wanted to start a company that made doing the right thing environmentally (planting moringa trees) into an income-generating activity for the world's poor.
Do you have any advice for college students interested in pursuing a career in sustainability?
Sustainability will only work when everyone can understand its importance. My advice to students of sustainability is to explore the issues from a variety of angles. Leverage your undergraduate experience to learn how to speak the languages of the civil, public and private sectors. Take business classes. Volunteer in the community. Explore philosophy. Engage in local policy.
Your education will give you all the specialization you need in sustainability, so spend your electives and free time learning how to make these issues tangible for society.
My advice for college students interested in pursuing a career in sustainability is to get your hands dirty. Seek out experiences — courses, programs, internships, extracurricular activities, etc. — that give you hands-on experiences in the areas you want to have an impact. For example, if you’re interested in the sustainability of our food system, visit a farm.
Try to have 15- to 30-minute informational interviews with individuals whose career paths you really admire. Learn how they got there and more about their day-to-day. Also, don’t be afraid of investing time and resources in getting to where you want to be, some of the most rewarding paths take more effort to get to. Lastly, it is never too late to make a switch into something different. Find the work and environment that best suits you.
College is a great time to have new experiences and travel abroad. In college, I studied abroad in Mexico and Costa Rica. Internships, fellowships and volunteer projects also provide opportunities to gain practical experience and allow you to learn what type of work interests you.
During my senior year of college, I participated in a Dell-funded sustainability job-training program. This program gave me the chance to work as a sustainability analyst for about two years. Also, join student clubs and organizations such as Net Impact. This will help to connect you to a diverse network of individuals who may come in handy when applying for jobs upon graduation.
The most important lesson that I learned while I was a student was that networking is key. Sustainability tends to be a niche field and it may be difficult to find job openings that have the word "sustainability" in the job title. By talking to professionals early on in my career, I understood that there is no straight XYZ path into the sustainability profession.
However, there are many ways for someone to pursue a career in sustainability without having that specific call-out in their title. For example, you can work for a company doing good and still positively impact the environment as a "non-sustainability person."