Sustainability Moves from Passion to Vocation
As the effects of climate change become ever more visible and impactful on our daily lives, there is a rapidly growing need for skilled people dedicated to finding ways to help the world mitigate and adapt to those changes. Fortunately, that need is being matched by the passion of college students and recent graduates who show a strong desire to tie their careers to a cause. A recent Pew Research Center report found that 76% of Gen Z (young people born from the late 1990s to 2010, now in their teens to early 30s) are overwhelmingly worried about climate change, and 32% of that age group participated in at least one major climate action during a one-year period.
Gen Z’s concerns surrounding climate change are translating to the job market, with combating global warming becoming not only a passion, but also a vocation: The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects environment-related jobs “to experience above-average growth” through 2026.
This spring, Environmental & Sustainability Studies faculty and alumni partnered with the Career Development Center (CDC), the university’s Public Interest Technology initiative, and the STEM Education Center to hold the first-ever Careers in Sustainable and Just Communities Networking Event. It was part of the "Spring into Action!" series in spring 2022, which also included climate-related events organized by The Global School and the university's Office of Sustainability.
The idea for the event, held on March 30 in Unity Hall, originated with Associate Professor of Teaching Lisa Stoddard, who is in the Department of Integrative and Global Studies (DIGS). Stoddard also teaches classes in the Environmental and Sustainability Studies program. The idea also originated with Michelle Mestres ’19, who works in corporate sustainability at Greenbiz. While fueled by Stoddard, the event’s creation was also supported by Rob Krueger, head of Social Science & Policy Studies at WPI, and by student interest; Hannah George ‘24 and Eugena Choi ‘24 were instrumental in developing and implementing the event.
“For some of our students, this was the first time they were in a room with such a large number of people from outside of WPI who are passionate about sustainability. One student expressed appreciation by telling me they felt seen, acknowledged, and valued. Now, as a university, we are going to further support those students by preparing them through their studies, but also through regular programming,” said Stoddard.
The event drew about 40 students, and about 30 climate-focused alumni and employers from a wide range of professions, including environmental engineers, environmental lawyers, and entrepreneurs. It was designed to take some of the pressure off the interview process and give students, employers, and alumni a more informal space to connect. This approach had benefits for all: students had the chance to learn more about the growing field of sustainability and receive career coaching, employers were able to see firsthand the impact and value WPI students can bring to their organizations, and the CDC was able to establish relationships in an industry that is poised for growth.
Mestres says WPI students leave campus well-prepared for careers in sustainability, particularly because of the project-based learning curriculum. She says corporate sustainability teams tend to be small, and her experience with the Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) and Major Qualifying Project (MQP) has been invaluable in her current work, giving her the tools to collaborate effectively with people in her company, particularly with those who are on different teams, or who bring different skill sets and expertise to the organization.
The collaborative spirit found at WPI is also key to the sustainability industry, “whether you’re working in government, an NGO, or corporate sustainability, everyone lifts each other up, it’s really collaboration over competition in the sustainability world,” said Mestres.
“Opportunities like the Careers in Sustainable and Just Communities Networking event allow us to make connections we don’t have already as an institution. We’re very fortunate: employers want to recruit WPI students, but some of the smaller and niche companies don’t have the resources or time for recruiting efforts. That’s why events like this one can be beneficial for everyone, allowing the CDC to make connections, and it’s great for students and alumni to foster those relationships,” said Amanda Laungani, the Interim Director of the Career Development Center.
Krueger, Stoddard, Mestres, and the CDC now plan to make the Careers in Sustainable and Just Communities Networking an annual event—something Krueger sees as part of a larger effort at the university.
“The Environmental & Sustainability Studies program brings together all of WPI’s strengths. It has a broad reach and is a major growth area for the university," said Krueger. “We try to prepare students to learn how to match their ethics with their career and academic interests in order to use their science and technological background to do something positive in the world.”
Krueger, Stoddard, Mestres, and the CDC are also in the process of creating other programming to help students with mentorship and career coaching throughout the year. Programming will include academic advising days, mentoring from other students and alumni, assistance with internship placement, career panels, and more networking opportunities with employers. In fact, Mestres is already serving as an ESS Alumni Ambassador and is currently mentoring two students, including one of whom is a double major in Business and ESS, and is interested in a career in corporate sustainability.
“We’re thinking programmatically to intentionally bring students’ interests together and help them find career opportunities on a larger scale to raise awareness of what’s possible,” said Stoddard.
MS in Community Climate Adaptation
The Community Climate Adaptation MS degree program is a collaborative, research-based, joint-degree program offered through WPI’s Department of Integrative & Global Studies (DIGS) and the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering (CEE). Students in the program will work within teams to use engineering, social science, and physical and biological science skills and expertise to address challenges of climate change impacts and capacities to adapt in communities around the world.
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