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Environmental Action: From Extracurricular to Career

September 10, 2012 By Amber Collett, Guest Commentary

As a new wave of freshman hit college campuses across the nation, they will be confronted with decisive questions. “What is my major?” “What do I want to do when I graduate?” “What do I want to do with my life?”

Many of today’s college students aren’t looking for a career—they’re looking for a calling, a vocation. They will need to rise above others’ expectations and assumptions that define a “good job” and discover their definition of “good work.”

So, to the new class of scholars, this is a challenge. Blend profession and vocation to define your career without being defined by it. Vocation is the set of roles you play and the actions you take throughout your life in relationship to others and the earth.

With a vocation-centric education and career, values need not be divorced from work at the office, in the community, or at home. Unfortunately, for many environmentally minded students, environmental action is too often seen as a hobby, a side-activity while living the relatively carefree life of a college student. As graduation nears, there seems to be a mounting pressure to transition to the ‘real world,’ whatever that is, and get a ‘real job.’

When I was in college, my father ended every call home with, “Amber, graduate first, save the world second.” As an environmental studies major, my father’s words always sparked in me a moment of silent panic. I deeply wanted my education to prepare and enable me to ‘save the world’. I spent my free time in college interning with nation-wide nonprofits and lobbying in Washington D.C. to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling. When I was on campus, I spent more time in the student center collecting petition signatures than in the library studying. The first time I led a group of my peers into a Senator’s office in full caribou regalia complete with cardboard antlers, I knew I was hooked on advocacy (yes, this indeed happened several times).

I was blessed to have visionary professors mentoring me, and I am forever grateful for their encouragement to seek a life worth living in addition to earning a college degree. Simply put, environmental studies can be more than a major—it can be a life calling.

I recently caught up with Josh Buswell-Charkow, executive director of Green Corps, a yearlong fellowship program for environmental organizers, which was my first job after graduating. When I asked for his opinion on job prospects for recent grads, he responded, “We face the biggest problems in human history right now. Yet, oddly, one of our largest challenges is not finding solutions, but implementing them. For individuals who believe they can’t bring their conscience to work every day and make an impact, I would say think again. There are jobs to be had and the planet needs you.”

To be clear, I can’t say that you will land your dream job by simply pursing your passion. Like any career, environmental action takes dedication and the drive to seek intern or externships that give you hands-on experience. Dreams must be balanced with practicality. Environmental sustainability and social justice are growing fields that can be tapped by a determined recent grad. For me, organizing and being politically engaged seemed the only rational response in a time of environmental crisis. I may not have grown up dreaming to be an environmental organizer, but I answered that call when the opportunity presented itself.

The options available to justice activists of all stripes are expanding. From organizing, to sustainability consulting, to government, there are countless ways to turn environmental action into a profession and vocation. So, freshman, start asking yourself the real questions; ask not what your parents expect of you, but what you expect of yourself. Pay attention to gut feelings, learn and explore your limits and abilities, and take advantage of circumstances that arise both in and out of the classroom.

Most importantly, approach your education and extra curricular activities with an open and critical mind. To borrow words of wisdom from the author Howard Thurman, “ask what makes you come alive and go do that…what the world needs is people who have come alive.” It may not yet be clear what makes you come alive, but when you find it, you can make it a vocation.

Amber Collett attended St. Olaf College, graduating with an Environmental Studies degree. In 2011, she was elected to the Hennepin County Soil and Water board. She currently works as a project manager with Fourth Sector Consulting. Amber previously worked as a communications associate at Transit for Livable Communities/Bike Walk Twin Cities, and has also worked as an organizer with Green Corps and Minnesota PIRG.

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