Why Environmental Leaders Need to Study Abroad
Grasping the complexity of environmental problems and possible solutions requires a global view.
Everything is connected in an ecosystem. Conservationists have long known this: Remove wolves from a landscape, for example, and the deer population will swing out of control. Chop down a tropical forest, and birds, bugs and countless as-yet-unidentified species will vanish. Life on earth hangs in a delicate balance.
“Pretty much all environmental issues are shared across the globe,” says Michael Wasserman, assistant professor of Environmental Science and Policy at St. Edward’s University. Which is why the program for the Professional Science Master’s in Environmental Management and Sustainability at St. Edward’s requires that students spend a month in Costa Rica. Conducting fieldwork in four different ecosystems in two countries, graduate students get a perspective on global issues that is invaluable to their professional development. “In order to see the complexity of these matters, it’s important to see problems in different places, as well as solutions being offered,” Wasserman says.
So why is international study essential for environmental leaders?
During his own study abroad experience, Wasserman visited a banana farm. He learned how land was torn up to plant trees and pesticides were used on the fruit. The tour forever affected how he viewed the connections between his own consumption at home and environmental impacts in other places. The decision to purchase a cheap banana at the supermarket was suddenly much more complex.
Travel to Antarctica, and you’ll see a handful of animals. Venture in to the tropical forest, and you’ll be stunned by the color and variety of the creatures that crawl, fly, wriggle and swing under the canopy. Wasserman, who has worked in or visited jungles in Uganda, Costa Rica, Panama, and Thailand, says, “If you’re really going to appreciate biodiversity, I think it’s important to visit the tropics to see it firsthand.”
For several years, Wasserman has studied primates in a national park in Uganda. His visits put him in close proximity to tea plantations, where workers at some locations may have been exposed to chemicals intended to be applied only with protective gear. Traveling to other countries gives St. Edward’s students a similarly illuminating perspective on how government policies and business practices affect both human and environmental health.
Different countries have found different ways to study and address environmental problems; there’s rarely a one-size-fits-all solution. Wasserman notes that one St. Edward’s graduate studied environmental issues in France, where scientists made extensive use of biomarkers to track nanoparticle contamination — a novel approach to track a recent environmental problem.
As corporations and countries with a global reach develop an interest in sustainability, they need to hire employees who can adapt to different cultures and find solutions that fit different molds. A large European retailer recently hired a St. Edward’s graduate student as an intern to evaluate its sustainability efforts, Wasserman notes. “International experience will set you apart when it comes to future job prospects,” he says.
In the intensive two-year Professional Science Master’s in Environmental Management and Sustainability, students explore sustainable development through environmental science in project management in Austin, Texas, and Costa Rica.
Joel Hoekstra is a freelance writer.