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AmeriCorps Alums Find Their Niche With Columbia University’s MPA in Environmental Science and Policy Program

July 3, 2013

Today’s guest posts come from three AmeriCorps alumni who have attended or are attending Columbia University’s Master’s of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy (MPA-ESP) Program, (# 3 ranked Environmental Policy & Management graduate school by U.S. News & World Report).  Each AmeriCorps alum enrolled at Columbia’s MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program is awarded a fellowship ranging from $6,000 to $20,000.

Emily Soergel

2013.07.Emily.Soergel.150x186I chose to pursue an MPA-ESP in large part because of my experience as an AmeriCorps VISTA.  As a VISTA, I was placed in an economic community development nonprofit in northern Rhode Island. It was an incredibly formative time in my life, as it provided me with responsibilities far beyond the typical entry-level positions that were available to me.  I operated with a great degree of independence in an unstructured environment, identifying environmental problems and working across the public, private and non-profit sectors to develop and implement solutions.  The programs that I led and the tens of thousands of dollars in grant funding that I raised directly impacted more than 240,000 residents in nine municipalities.  I enjoyed my year of service so much that I decided to stay on with my host organization for another six months.

The challenge of working across wide groups of stakeholders to improve environmental quality of life is what led me to pursue an MPA ESP. I was attracted to the program’s unique combination of courses in environmental science, economics and management and its emphasis on practical application. The spring semester capstone workshop was perhaps my most enriching experience, as it allowed me to work with a high-profile client on international environmental policy. I saw the real-world application of our work when my group presented our policy recommendations to around 30 UN delegates in Thailand leading up to the UNFCCC’s 17th Conference of Parties. An added bonus was the diverse student body, and I ended up learning as much from my peers as I did from my professors while forming a network of life-long friends and colleagues.

Since graduating in 2011 I have worked at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the earth science research institution of Columbia University and the Earth Institute. As a Senior Program Analyst in the Directorate, I use the skills I gained from my master’s program on a daily basis, analyzing and interpreting a variety of data to understand underlying program and business processes and recommend improvements to senior management. My job requires me to work across groups of stakeholders to execute the goals and priorities of the Directorate, making my AmeriCorps experience still relevant.

I am so grateful for my experience as a VISTA, as it enabled me to focus and direct my passions for service and the environment in a way that was meaningful. The education loan made it that much easier to pursue a world-class master’s degree and advance my professional career. I am confident that the knowledge, skills, and networks I gained in my graduate program will continue to serve me well, wherever my career may take me.

Erica Helson

2013.07.Erica.HelsonI joined AmeriCorps in 2008 through a program called California Safe Corps.  I was stationed at the American Red Cross where I taught disaster preparedness in Los Angeles.  Shortly after starting my AmeriCorps term, hurricanes Ike and Gustav hit the Gulf Coast.  Millions of people were evacuated from their homes, and damage from the hurricanes was extensive. Later that same year, I was involved in another disaster response effort when a devastating fire caused the loss of nearly 500 houses. Volunteering in shelters near Houston and Los Angeles, I saw firsthand how disasters disrupt communities—stalling the local economy, destroying homes, and uprooting families from their neighborhoods.

Following my AmeriCorps year of service, I continued working for the American Red Cross until 2012.  In my years with the organization I saw many more disasters, and learned about how such disasters are increasing in intensity due to our warming planet. This triggered my interest in energy policy, and led me to take a position at a solar company before joining the MPA-ESP Class of 2014 at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

The team environment I experienced as an AmeriCorps volunteer was great preparation for the collaborative structure of the ESP program, where you work in groups to problem solve and learn from one another. More importantly, AmeriCorps reaffirmed the value of service. The MPA ESP program is a continuation of this service, providing students with the skills to create the greatest impact. Upon graduating from the program, I hope to work on the expansion of renewable energies to slow global warming and the disasters that accompany it.

Jillian Theibert

2013.07.Jillian.TheibertServing in the AmeriCorps opened my eyes to a world far beyond the one I had been living in for 22 years. I was given the unique opportunity to serve both my community and the environmental field as I served as somewhat of a guinea pig AmeriCorps member in a partnership between the YWCA of Central Alabama and one of Alabama’s influential environmental non-profits, Conservation Alabama. I volunteered in the Birmingham city school system, attended public health forums, pollution forums, and environmental meetings. I learned quickly what it was like to be in new situations, and how to adapt and contribute to the best of my ability. I found myself at tables with policy shapers, decision makers, state departments, invested citizens, and motivated environmentalists, among which I was consistently the youngest by at least ten years. It was in these meetings that I realized I needed a graduate degree, but one that I could relate to this kind of variety of situations. AmeriCorps helped to me see my strengths, my weaknesses, and the opportunities I wanted to create for myself. My experience was truly invaluable, and life changing.

Columbia’s MPA-ESP Program was the perfect program for my next step; an interdisciplinary program with a mix of science and policy: the science behind the problems we face today and the potential policy solutions of the future. I knew that the science would be a challenge, but imperative in reaching my abilities. I chose to attend Columbia because it’s one of the strongest environmental policy programs in the world, and I know it will give me the skills I need in order to move forward with my personal and career goals. AmeriCorps allowed me to see my love of service, and Columbia’s MPA-ESP program will give me the knowledge I need in order to serve the world successfully.

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