State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Student Profile: Emily Soergel

After working with communities in developing areas to reduce, reuse and recycle, Emily Soergel is witness to the power of collective community engagement in promoting the creation of effective strategies to cope with environmental challenges. A member of the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy (M.P.A. E.S.P.) Class of 2010, Soergel’s work in developing countries in issues of waste management and sustainable development has led her into the field of sustainable waste management.

Before joining the M.P.A. E.S.P. program this June, Soergel was involved in the AmeriCorps VISTA program, managing an environmental community development program in northern Rhode Island. “The nine municipalities I worked in ranged from urban to industrial to rural, each with their own set of environmental problems that required different tools to fix,” she recalls. “A unifying solution, however, was community engagement in recognizing the problems and ownership in solving them.” In order to increase community engagement, Soergel mobilized over 1,600 volunteers and coordinated a network of stakeholders that included community organizations, municipal leaders, businesses, residents and local and national non-profit organizations. Under Soergel’s leadership, these groups and individuals were successful in their efforts to prevent litter, reduce waste, increase recycling and beautify communities.

Having honed her skills in the VISTA program, Soergel ventured to India where she volunteered with a non-profit organization dedicated to water conservation and reforestation. Using locally sourced materials, tools and techniques to minimize environmental impacts, the organization was successful in reforesting and was able to restore natural processes. Before her work with VISTA, and while still an undergraduate, Soergel backpacked through Thailand. She observed the profuse amounts of waste that littered the landscape in both urban and rural areas. When Soergel returned to the United States, she investigated Thailand’s litter problem. Her research culminated in an honors thesis that explored a wide network of issues, including human relationships with the environment, perceptions of waste, economic development, infrastructure and the role of international non-profit organizations, among other things. Soergel says she “discovered that Thailand industrialized so rapidly that how its people dealt with their trash…was no longer appropriate as Western [materials] were introduced…I realized how crucial an interdisciplinary approach was to solving environmental problems, especially those on a global scale.”

Soergel’s experiences led her to the M.P.A. E.S.P. program. “I saw this program, with its holistic approach to solving environmental problems, as a natural extension of my background in socio-environmental anthropology,” she says. “By incorporating the environmental sciences, policy and public administration, I am confident that this program will give me the greatest education and most applicable skills that will allow me to identify and accomplish what I set out to achieve in the environmental field.”

The program’s interdisciplinary approach to tackling environmental and sustainable development issues appealed to her, and, she says, it incorporates a “human element” that is absent in more traditional environmental science and management programs. The program trains sophisticated public managers and policymakers to apply innovative, systems-based thinking to environmental issues and challenges students to think systemically and act pragmatically.

Students are taught practical skills and concepts such as the connections between policy intent, program design, organizational capacity and political feasibility. Soergel and her classmates will also delve into topics of public and environmental ethics, perceptions of environmental quality and environmental values, how to explain science to nonscientists, and how to manage the work of scientists. Students learn how to coordinate organizational change and innovation and how to work in groups and deal with group conflict. Soergel hopes these skills and strategies have will help her to more effectively communicate the need for environmental awareness and allow her to manage human-waste interactions and environmental programs in developing countries.

Soergel attributes some of her enthusiasm about the program to its professors, who are preeminent in their respective fields. “I think of my professors as Led Zeppelin,” she says. “Each member of that group was the absolute best at their instrument, and together they created the greatest band of their time. It is motivating to be led by professors of such a high caliber, who are diverse and socially engaged.”

Soergel is also encouraged by the other students, noting, “I am surrounded by students of many nationalities, languages and cultures, with assorted educational and professional backgrounds and different motivations for pursuing this program…. I am struck by how, in the face of such a challenging and all-consuming program, we band together so that this program becomes cooperative rather than competitive. The camaraderie is amazing, and it is truly a testament to this program that it brings together such a diverse array of students with different life, educational, and professional experiences and knowledge, allowing us to learn from each other as much as we learn from our professors.”

After graduate school, Soergel hopes to use the skills she will learn in the E.S.P. program, combined with her background in environmental anthropology, to design waste management systems. Her travels have shown her that the litter problem she encountered in Thailand is unfortunately all too common in developing countries. By understanding that environmentally safe trash disposal often requires complicated solutions, Soergel is confident that she can design waste management systems that are both regionally effective and culturally appropriate.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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