The Career Center hosted a panel discussion Monday informing students on how to pursue careers in sustainability through advocacy and community leadership.
South Bend city’s director of sustainability Therese Dorau said she did not know she wanted to be involved in sustainability immediately after graduating college. She said she stepped away from a Ph.D. program in chemistry at the University of Michigan to pursue a more fulfilling career before entering the field.
“I [needed] to find a way to keep the science that I love, but do more with it,” she said. “I was just very unhappy. There wasn’t really a ‘why’ to my work as a Ph.D. student in chemistry.”
Dorau said she encourages students to look for ways to apply what they are learning through their classes to broader areas of interest. She said this led her to what she is passionate about today, rather than feeling limited to one area of work.
“I’m a person of faith, and I do believe that there was a hand involved in pushing me to the brink of hating chemistry so much that I had to find something else,” she said. “ … I was really grateful for the failure that I experienced as a teaching candidate at Michigan, because it allowed me to discover a field that I honestly didn’t know existed [and] that combined a lot of my interests.”
There are a variety of majors and areas of study that can be applied to sustainability, Dorau said, if that is where a student’s passion lies.
“There is always a way to take your skill set and the practical things that you’re learning, and apply them to the cause that you care about,” she said. “As I talk to students, I always tell them that my goal is always to say, ‘What is your major? What is your career interest?’ and then I can steer that toward sustainability. I can always find a home for you in the sustainability realm.”
Megan Anderson, associate organizing representative of the Indiana chapter of the Sierra Club — an environmental advocacy organization — said her interest in sustainability stemmed from personal experiences serving communities that have been affected by environmental issues, but that she didn’t have a clear idea of how to become more involved until she went to college.
“I kind of developed this lens of what I thought I might be interested in,” she said. “I didn’t really know much about it, I didn’t know what environmental justice was until I was in college [and] I didn’t know how systemic this issue was.”
Anderson said discovering how much carbon pollution comes from the state of Indiana alone inspired her to start volunteering with the Beyond Coal campaign at Indiana University, which led to her current career.
“I learned Indiana has a lot of coal plants and that we put out as much carbon solution as some small nations, which isn’t right,” she said. “We have not that big of a population, but our homes are really inefficient and our coal plants are big and dirty. … Some of your power is coming from one of these super polluters. It’s the sixth largest carbon polluter in the nation.”
Katie Otterbeck, member of Notre Dame’s class of 2015 and campaign organizer at We Are Impact — another environmental advocacy program — said she first began working to make a difference at Notre Dame through GreeND when she arrived as a student.
“I lived in Lewis Hall, and from my dorm room window I’d see — in plain view — our coal-fired power plant on campus,” she said. “So if you don’t know, we still burn coal here on campus. … It felt like what we were doing in GreeND wasn’t enough, and we had to do more.”
Otterbeck said she and the rest of GreeND led a campaign to encourage the University to divest from fossil fuel companies as a “political statement.”
“We have an ethically charged endowment,” she said. “So, therefore, the things that we’re invested in make a statement about our values, and if it’s wrong to wreck the climate then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage. … [GreeND’s campaign] coinciding with the pope’s encyclical on climate, Notre Dame then announced in August of 2015 that it would invest $25 million in renewable energy as a fuel source on campus as part of a sustainability package.”
Although the University still has work to do in becoming a sustainable campus, Otterbeck said this commitment is a step in the right direction and showed her the value of initiative and advocacy in a community such as Notre Dame.
“We have a lot of work still to do on this campus,” she said. “This campus needs to be 100 percent renewable and we have a fight to fight. But that still felt like a personal victory for me, and that’s really all to say that I believe that the most effective way to enact positive social change is through backing up hard-hitting research with citizen activism and then advocacy.”
Originally published in The Observer on February 28, 2017