Education News

The Earth Institute’s First Undergraduate Sustainable Development Majors Graduating

2011-05-05

On May 18, 2011, the Earth Institute’s first undergraduate Sustainable Development majors will graduate alongside Sustainable Development special concentrators at Columbia University’s commencement ceremony.

“The development and implementation of the Sustainable Development academic programs was a very ambitious project that relied on the creativity and resolve of a large number of people at the University,” Kevin Griffin, Associate Professor and head of the Undergraduate Special Concentration and Major in Sustainable Development, praises the commitment exhibited by the students, “It’s exciting and rewarding to see such a strong group of students graduating this year and amazing that even in the first year of its existence we have students completing the full major - a real testament to their energy and dedication to the ideals of the program.  The future of our program is very bright and I look forward to staying in touch with these students and learning how they put their education into action.”

Since its inception in 2007, the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development has expanded to include both a special concentration and a new major in sustainable development, launched in the Fall of 2010. This diverse student body has grown exponentially since the spring declaration period to now include 130 students: 36 majors, exceeding the 20 anticipated, and 94 special concentrators, an increase from 86 students last year.  Among the over 40 students graduating this May, we are pleased to celebrate the graduation of the first program majors. 

Graduates of the program are uniquely prepared to approach issues of sustainability from a holistic perspective in the public, private, and non-profit sectors.

Mark Huselsenbeck is a graduating senior who began as a special concentrator and subsequently worked diligently to complete the Sustainable Development major.  Mark started volunteering for environmental non-profits when he was in the sixth grade, and will join the Peace Corps upon his graduation.  He argues that it is the interdisciplinary nature of the program that has prepared him to achieve his goals. “In providing you with a framework for understanding the extraordinarily complex and interconnected challenges of sustainable development, you are better equipped to advance solutions that have the potential to generate systemic, sustainable change.”

For many students, it is the multidisciplinary nature of the curriculum that attracts them to the sustainable development program.  Evan advocates that the coursework provided him with the tools necessary to realize his long-held dreams of social action: “Although I had a lot of good will and energy to make a difference, I did not have a clear way to be most effective. However, it was when I saw the variety of courses offered through the sustainable development program that I had found a dynamic way to tailor my focus.” The sustainable development program extends from the philosophical, ideological and structural traditions of the Columbia Core, a set of common courses required of all Columbia College undergraduates, irrespective of their choice of major. The sustainable development program builds upon this core, requiring a minimum of 15 courses and a practicum for the major, or nine courses and a practicum for the concentration. Study abroad and internships are strongly encouraged, particularly to act as a basis for thesis research and to provide students with practical experience early on in their professional development.

“We are thrilled with the dedication, hard work, and enthusiasm that the students bring to the program,” praises Ruth Defries, Denning Professor of Sustainable Development, and professor of ecology, evolution, and environmental biology at Columbia University and the Earth Institute’s Center for Environmental Research and Conservation, “The students have taken a challenging path, but a path that must be taken to deal with one of the defining issues of the century.”

 “We are confident that the students graduating from the program will be well equipped with the skills to go out and do great things in the area of sustainable development of their choosing”, says Natalie Unwin-Kuruneri, senior program manager for the program. Learn more about the undergraduate program and Sustainable Development by visiting the Earth Institute website.

Evan Hamilton will graduate this year from the special concentration and has plans to spend his summer working on climate research at Lamont-Doherty Observatory.  “This degree is perfect for someone with an inter-disciplinary, problem-solving and ambitious mentality,” he explains, “sustainable development is one giant puzzle that has many moving pieces that come together behind one topic. Though one may choose to specialize in one of these fields, it is still necessary to have an understanding of how the entire picture comes together. What I got most out of this program was looking at the overlap between fields that I had previously never seen before.”