When I decided to change my life by entering the environmental field, I
didn’t have a clue about what I could do, how to do it, or where to go
to make my way. At the time, though, I didn’t care much about “how,” so
I stumbled my way through.
I haven’t done too badly, I suppose. But, 10 years later, having been through and worked in the academic world, I know that it’s not magic and there is a much easier way than the road that I traveled.
So, read on: Whether you’re in high school thinking about college or in college thinking about graduate school, you can learn from my mistakes - and, believe me, there were many…
LESSON #1: Getting Started? Take an Inventory
The environmental profession may look very specialized and scientific, and the majority of positions probably are. But it’s important for you to know that no matter what your skills are, you can succeed.
To get started, make a list of your environmental interests and include the issues that are most important to you. For example:
consider your skills and make another list. If you’re working, what
skills have you learned? Accounting, cooking, creative arts,
communications, management, nursing, researching, etc.
If you’re in school, what are your best subjects? Math and science? English or history?
Consider your life experiences, too. Maybe you’ve learned a good bit about hiking or taking care of plants on your own or through clubs and organizations.
Compare your list of skills against the requirements of prospective careers. This will also help you identify areas where you need to acquire more skills.
Keep these lists. We’ll get back to them in a minute.
LESSON #2: The Internet is Your Friend
There are resources on the web for everything. Need to find a college? There’s Petersons.com. Need financial aid? There’s FinAid.com. Need to find or start a new career? There are more job boards than you can shake a stick at.
But, don’t forget human interaction. There’s only so much feedback you can get from a computer screen. Use the lists you made in Lesson 1 as discussion points, and get going….
Go to career centers and counseling centers - Talk to the pros at your high school or a local college. It’s their job to talk about your ambitions and how to meet them.
Do some creative brainstorming - Talk with friends and family about what you want to do in the environmental field, why you want to do it, and how you can best get to where you want to go.
Talk with environmental professionals - When you find an area of interest, track down some folks who are already doing it by calling companies or agencies. Many would love to speak to you, and even give you a hands-on tour of what they do. (Keep in mind that you may need to try a few before you can make an appointment.)
LESSON #3: The Calendar in My Mind
I really had no idea how much there was to do, and how so many little things - which really seemed like they should take only a few hours - could drag into days… then weeks… then months!
No matter how quickly you think you can get things done, it will almost always take much longer than you think.
Here are a few pointers from my “coulda-woulda-shoulda” list:
Think Ahead - If you start early and plan ahead, you’ll have had twice as many environmental programs to choose from.
Don’t Just “Meet” the Deadlines - If you wait until the last minute, there’s less chance of standing out. To make a good first impression and have your name stick out in the minds of decision-makers, get your material in early!
Pre-requisite classes and exams are important indicators of how prepared you are. Find out what your top choice of colleges want to see, and meet those expectations.
Be certain that the people who write your prepare personalized letters about you. A detailed letter from a teacher who is familiar with you and your capabilities carries more weight than a generic letter from a high-ranking official.
The competition to get into environmental programs can be tough. If you aren’t accepted into the #1 school on your list, don’t let your optimism be tainted. When I didn’t get accepted into program that I most wanted, I simply made my list of pros and cons, picked the next best program, packed my bags, and went on my way.
So many professionals, employers will tell you that it doesn’t matter what school you come from because school won’t teach you the enthusiasm, determination and motivation that will get you places.
LESSON #4: Financing College 101
No one - and I mean NO ONE - who is determined to get an environmental degree should be stopped by a lack of money. There are too many ways to get it.
The Department of Education says that about half of you won’t need financial aid. The other half of you will hunt and search everywhere for student loans, grants, awards and scholarships. For this half, when it comes to financing your environmental degree, fortunately, you have a few options:
Student Loans - Chances are, if you have a real financial need, you’ll qualify for a student loan, and you won’t have to worry too much about paying for your degree until after you graduate. I believe that the reward of a fulfilling environmental career far outweighs the low-interest debt.
Free Money - There are lots of funding opportunities for every kind of environmental student… Scholarships, assistantships, grants, awards, etc. But they aren’t easy to get, and if you don’t do your homework, you’ll surely miss the boat!
The biggest lesson here is that even if you miss the Free Money ride (and the vast majority of us do), your environmental career is far from sunken. I looked for environmental grants and scholarships, but I got started too late. I ended up working a lot and taking out student loans.
It may sound like a hard road to travel, but you can do it. Don’t believe for even a minute that you can’t.
LESSON #5: Credibility Counts!
Perhaps the most important part of your environmental education is building your credibility so employers will feel comfortable hiring you.
It’s good to remember that good grades aren’t everything, too! Matter of fact, there are a lot of employers who don’t really care what your grades are - all they care about is whether or not you can do the job.
You will find that, in the course of your environmental education, you will have at least a couple of opportunities to really show what you can do:
The Internship - Internships are huge, so take them very, very seriously. You absolutely will not get a better chance to show your stuff, your commitment, and your ability to work in the environmental field. Most of the time, it’s not about showing off what you know, but what can do and what you’re willing to do. If you impress your boss during your internship, you can bet that you’ll have an inside track if a full-time position opens up. You can also use the networking resources of that company to find another similar position in the same or a related field.
Volunteer! - There are so many organizations, in every sector of the economy that have more work on their hands than they can handle. You should take advantage of every opportunity that you can to gain first-hand experience in your field of interest. Volunteering is a golden opportunity to show your stuff and make important connection with people who can help you find your “dream job” in the environmental field. So look around in your community, and find out what’s going on; call local groups, agencies and businesses to see what you can do to help. Make the time to volunteer!
The Thesis or Project - This isn’t applicable for all programs (particularly for most undergraduate studies), but for those for which it does… you get to choose something to investigate a problem to tackle. You get to find the answers, do the research, and document your findings. It’s a huge endeavor, and it doesn’t have to be just academic.” You should make it worthwhile, make it say something… and, while you’re at it, do it with the idea of impressing future employers!
It was in my first year of graduate school that I decided to start a nonprofit environmental group as part of my Masters project, designed to help other environmental groups through networking and communications.
It was in my second year that I landed an internship for a water quality testing agency, which led to a full-time position.
I graduated, but I kept in touch with the environmental faculty. Through my full-time job, I made many contacts with government agencies and environmental businesses. Through my volunteer group, I made many contacts with the environmental sector and community leaders.
These experiences are what has led me to where I am today.
LESSON #6: Everyone is Important
Maybe this is more philosophical than educational, but you should remember that everyone you meet has a perspective based on his or her own experiences. Every single one of them is unique. Every single person you meet has something different to offer.
You can learn from them!
In the environmental field, in particular, the issues are so complex that they boggle the best of the scientific minds - have you ever noticed how difficult it is to find a consensus on almost any issue?
When you are making your way in the environmental field, pay attention to the people you meet - teachers, students, co-workers, business people, community activists, government regulators, and anyone else who takes the issues seriously for whatever reason. They all bring something important to the table.
Everything in the world is so interconnected, there are so many factors to consider, variables are constantly changing… I mean, this is a tough field!
But the environmental profession is also extremely important. In fact, our lives depend on it. With a little planning and a lot of commitment, you could be on the road to making some significant contributions to our planet.
Ward Allebach is a partner of Education.org and editor of www.EnviroEducation.com, a web site designed to help people find colleges, universities and training opportunities in any environmental field. He is an MS graduate of the Environmental Studies Program at California State University, Fullerton.
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