Mariví Perdomo Caba (SUMA ’15) is currently SUMA program manager and the chair of the board at Big Island Group. She splits her time with working with the M.S. in Sustainability Management program and sustainability start-up ventures. Given her unique perspective, she is the perfect person to answer the most common questions asked about the program. The application deadline for the fall semester is May 15.
I spent a year and a half visiting schools and looking at different graduate programs that focused on the physical aspects of sustainability. I wanted to work on my projects in the Dominican Republic and help design a better future, and for that I needed more than architecture and planning courses. After more than half a decade of training and only two electives, it was time to get a degree, go straight to work and refine the skills I already knew I needed. I didn’t want to be just an architect, just a designer. I needed exposure to other disciplines, perspectives and cultures. The Sustainability Management program met all of the criteria.
I moved to New York City in 2013. I was looking to complement the skills obtained from architecture and urban studies. I decided to test the waters by starting in one of the professional certification programs. I later enrolled in the masters’ program with the idea of taking some water courses to give me a more global approach to water issues. Then, in what I thought would be my last semester, the certification in Sustainable Water Management became available and, of course, I had to enroll in that one, too! That’s one of the great things about this program—once you’re in, you can take other courses and get a certification of professional achievement.
Projects about sustainability + networking
When I visited Columbia, I knew I would get more than what I came for—not just knowledge and skills, but the contacts to continue one of my favorite projects: coastal management. I had started, with a team in the Dominican Republic, Big Island Group and other sustainability projects within BIG. Our beach app is one of the first efforts. Beaches are public spaces, they are not private, but it is easy for users to think that they are, especially when the “nice, clean parts of the beach” are occupied by private companies. This leads to the idea that nobody needs to take care of the rest because it doesn’t belong to anyone. But it belongs to everyone, and in island countries such as the Dominican Republic, what happens on the coast affects the economy. We aim to help build a community that visits, cares, and demands better management of these assets, and this is how Beach Up started.
Start of a startup
We began developing Beach Up, a mobile app and a website designed to inform and educate about the beaches in the Dominican Republic, in 2013. Our aim is to educate beach users on the impact we make when we visit beaches. The Dominican Republic has more than 200 beaches, but locals and visitors only know—and have been to—a handful of these. As a consequence, these beaches are the only ones being properly managed, while more beaches with great potential remain in misuse, neglect, and pose threats to the quality of life and economic growth of island countries.
We are combining our efforts with professionals and locals from other countries to study and solve some of the issues we were facing—such as access—and along the way, we have learned that many of these problems and needs are common to other countries, and some have been already been solved. For example, most beaches are not visited because the coordinates lead to a cliff, or an area with strong waves, and it becomes difficult to find them. We have been collaborating with other efforts and now, each access point has an exact address, which has made getting there easy.
How did the SUMA program help?
Some of the instructors and classmates had the answer to some of the problems and challenges we were facing. The discussions that came up in some of our class sessions helped me understand the challenges of Beach Up from a multi-disciplinarian perspective. Among the courses that helped understand the physical aspects and achieve better results, I would mention Responsiveness and Resilience in the Built Environment, Geographic Information Systems for Sustainability Management, and Water Governance. Also, Cost-Benefit Analysis and Sustainability Reporting & Strategy helped me understand the stakeholders and how to calculate what was material and what the trade-offs are.
Still in touch with students from the program?
Yes. I was a very shy student at first, but I made numerous friends here, I still am (making new friends).
Some of my classmates now collaborate and help me with the projects, and some have already visited the DR. Others are visiting soon.
Being an international student
Most people seemed like they knew everything already, even what courses to take. I had to switch cultures, languages and I didn’t know where to go, where to eat, what to do. Once I felt like I understood my surroundings, and realize that we are all trying to find something, things get easier. I met with my faculty advisor, we discussed what I wanted to achieve, talked about some of the courses I wanted to and had to take, and we defined a road map. On my second semester, I applied and got selected as a curriculum and grading assistant. Working on campus, and for the program, opens doors that translate into future opportunities. Funny how things find their way of fitting, now I work here.
Experience in New York
Moving to New York is just the beginning of the adventure. In my case, I first visited the campus in 2011 to check out the neighborhoods around it. It was all different and new; I found things difficult at first. I did the self-paced campus tour and bought a few books about New York. I talked to some students, did my due diligence. I called the people I wanted to write me recommendation letters and told them about what I saw. I started reading and finally sent out my application.
By the time I went to new student orientation, things were 80 percent clear. Finally, the missing pieces: I remember we got a flash drive from the SUMA office with a campus map, numerous CU resources and a list of places to eat, study and lounge. Bingo. Then, on the first week of the semester, I went to a couple of events. Back then, we had book swaps and asked “older” students about their experience with some courses and instructors, that became what now is the Course Speed-Dating event, a great initiative for students finding their way. I felt more confident. Some days can be difficult in this city, but there’s something about New York that makes it all worth it.
The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Visit our website to learn more.