Alumni Demystify the Challenges and Rewards of Environmental Work

April 19, 2019
Amanda Nagy
Picture of woman presenting slideshow
Nineteen alumni working in environmental fields talked about professional pathways in a recent career day hosted by the Environmental Studies Program and EnviroAlums. Photo credit: Pang Fei Chiang '19

As environmental career fields become increasingly multidisciplinary and competitive, current students and graduates must be open to pursuing a variety of internships and entry-level opportunities before landing their ideal job, according to alumni who have forged environmental careers.

In a career day hosted by the Environmental Studies Program earlier this spring, there was plenty of advice to go around. The event brought 19 alumni to campus discuss the various pathways to an environmental career. Working in a range of sectors such as government, education, climate change adaptation, consulting, geology, and food and agriculture, alumni shared their trajectories and experiences in a series of panel discussions.

Fourth-year Yael Reichler, one of the student coordinators for Environmental Careers Day, says she appreciated the speakers’ honesty surrounding the difficulty of finding a job and the challenges in finding community after graduation. She also appreciated their tips for approaching both of these processes with openness and patience.

“Events like the Environmental Careers Day provide the necessary support for students of all years in thinking about their goals for summer, winter term, and life after graduation,” says Reichler, an environmental studies major and history minor. “Job searching can be isolating, and career days make the process more public and the resources more readily available. It also reminds students to seek out those resources and to support their peers in their own process.”

Reichler says a common idea expressed by the speakers, especially by recent alumni, was that environmental work can be challenging, and it’s important to emphasize your own self-care when doing this type of work. “Many of the alumni spoke to the important experience of putting yourself out there and trying different types of jobs before you can know what you want to do in the long term.”

After graduation, Jesse Gerstin ’07 discovered his calling in the areas of forest conservation and renewable energy as a two-year Shansi fellow in Banda Aceh, Indonesia.

“Like many Oberlin students, I had a variety of interests and passions. Although I was uncertain about what I wanted to do, I knew I wanted a career with a meaningful impact,” says Gerstin. He will be leaving his position as director of the Clinton Climate Initiative at the Clinton Foundation in May to join a renewable energy company, SimpliPhi Power , as its director of sustainable business development. “In Indonesia, my interest in the environment resurfaced as the impacts of climate change felt much more tangible and urgent where I was living.”

Following his Shansi fellowship, Gerstin stayed in Indonesia and began working in forest conservation to protect against palm oil expansion. He says one job led to the next. He eventually joined the Clinton Climate Initiative to help lead its Indonesia forestry program.

Gerstin majored in French and an interdisciplinary major known as Third World Studies (no longer offered), which focused on politics, economics, history, and literature in the developing world. He stresses that people from all backgrounds and disciplines will be needed to solve pressing environmental issues.

“Very few people stay in the same job, let alone career, their entire lives, and people tend to put undue pressure on themselves to pick the ‘right’ job or to attend graduate school after graduation,” he says.

“You learn as much, if not more, from discovering what you do not like (in my case, consulting), and one opportunity will only lead to the next. Make the best decision you can with what you know at the time, but remember this will undoubtedly not be the last career decision you make.”   

For her first postgraduate job, Anna Moore ’18 was fortunate to find a position that she had always envisioned. An environmental studies graduate with a pathway in waste reduction, Moore is a venue sustainability coordinator for Live Nation at Blossom Music Center in Northeast Ohio. There she leads the Zero Waste program and other initiatives.

She was undecided her first year at Oberlin, but through a summer internship the following year supported by the Career Development Center and a fund from the Class of 1965, she found the clarity she needed.

“That internship, a remarkably joyful and engaging time, led me to realize that few things motivate and energize me as much as reducing waste,” Moore says.

Moore says the Environmental Studies Program taught her to recognize justice and human well-being as part of sustainability, and that has given her confidence when she addresses those concerns in her work. Her involvement with the Community-Based Social Marketing research lab introduced her to an approach based on social psychology, which she uses in her current position.

Moore was also a forward on the women’s basketball team and a sprinter on the women’s track and field team, and says that her experience as a scholar athlete prepared her to push through initial discomfort to develop relationships and have fun giving presentations.

“All of this social learning prepared me for the most rewarding part of my current job, which is building community around sustainability.”

Browse the Flickr gallery for photos from the event

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