Writer Laura Stephenson is an environmental science major at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, focusing in environmental and community health.
What exactly does it mean to be a student in the environmental field at a liberal arts university?
To answer this question, I asked a few of my peers and here’s what I found out. Many environmental students (including myself) expressed frustration about being a “jack of all trades, master of none.” Many of us feel like we’ve gone to school for four years and have few real-world skills.
However, take Patrick Boleman as an example environmental science student. Patrick and I have many things in common–we’re both environmental science majors, both have the same green backpacks, and both have been unofficially nominated for the Peace Corps. Patrick explained to me that back in the old days, you’d have an apprenticeship to become a shoemaker. He says that today, you need to know the political, social, environmental, and economical impacts of being a shoemaker. Although he doesn’t want to be a shoemaker, this is what his education has provided: a comprehensive understanding of how the world works. After the Peace Corps, Patrick plans to go to graduate school for Forestry or natural resource management.
Another example is Meredith Robbins, an environmental studies major and an urban planning minor. She studied abroad at the Albemarle Ecological Field Site on the Outer Banks of North Carolina along with nine other students and learned about environmental law, policy, and poetry. She kayaked through the Great Dismal Swamp and held an internship with the Planning Department of Currituck County. Back on campus, Meredith has focused on the positive ways to approach environmental issues. She’s currently the coordinator for a local food bank located in the basement of a predominately African-American church. This food bank and its operations encompass her definition of sustainability. Community volunteers pick up recently expired food at local grocery stores in a purple church van with a license plate that reads “Vic’ry.” The food that isn’t eaten is fed to local hogs. Since tobacco has been gradually replaced by hog farming in North Carolina, there are plenty of hogs to feed.
Meredith is also working with the county’s economic development agency to develop a more comprehensive “farm to fork” policy. While she might not know how to farm, but her major has “provided her with a much larger and more inclusive understanding of the environment.” After graduation, Meredith plans to pursue a Master’s in urban planning and will certainly use what she’s learned in her undergraduate career to maintain a comprehensive view of the environment.
I thought Patrick explained what it means to be an environmental student best when he said we’re taught to “cast a wide net.” Both Meredith and Patrick emphasize the fact that while environmental programs teach students how to think and respond, it’s up to us to take the initiative to put our education into action.