State of the Planet

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Why This Marine Corps Veteran is Studying Sustainability Policy

Mike Tuckfelt, MPA ESP Class of 2018

Mike Tuckfelt is a current MPA in Environmental Science and Policy student and a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and the Afghanistan War. He holds a B.S. in Aeronautics and previously worked as an Air Support Control Officer, Platoon Commander, and Energy and Environmental Manager for the U.S. Marine Corps. Mike has earned numerous certifications, academic and leadership awards, including Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges, and has served as a community volunteer and mentor around the world. Passionate about sustainability, Mike joined the MPA-ESP program with the goal of learning how to influence sustainability policy and how to educate decision-makers about sustainability issues. He will complete the MPA-ESP program in May of 2018 and M.S. Sustainability Management Program by 2019.

Mike was interviewed by Brian Hong, ESP intern and M.S. Sustainability Management Program candidate.

1. What is your background and how did that foster an interest in environmental sustainability?

I served with the U.S. Marine Corps for 10 years, which is not a typical path for most entering the field of environmental sustainability. However, a series of challenges led me to discover my true calling. The first major challenge I faced was going through Marine Corps boot camp when I was 18 years old. Having to face such a difficult program without my childhood support systems forced me to create my own support system for the first time. I learned the values of hard work and self-sufficiency when my world was turned upside down in boot camp.

Tuckfelt is a veteran of the United States Marine Corp and the War in Afghanistan
Tuckfelt is a veteran of the United States Marine Corp and the War in Afghanistan

The second challenge occurred when I was being considered for a deployment to Afghanistan. I was absolutely convinced I would be chosen because, in my mind, I embodied everything that a good Marine should be. I wasn’t picked. Instead, I was banished to “corrosion control,” where I scraped rust off of planes for six months. I was forced to acknowledge that what I thought others would recognize as strength and intelligence, was perceived as selfishness and arrogance. From that point on, I endeavored to be humble and a team-oriented individual. I learned to put others before myself while busting rust in Japan. I could now achieve real success in the military.

These building blocks set me up for the third challenge. In 2014, finally on a deployment I had coveted so much six years earlier, I had all the things I thought I wanted out of my career: a team of amazing Marines at my side, a chance to serve my country at the heart of the action, and pride in myself and my accomplishments. However, I soon learned that I needed to take another big leap in my personal growth. What I witnessed and what I had to do in Afghanistan was extremely difficult for me from a moral standpoint.  I returned to the U.S. and began the process of finding a new mission that was in need of warriors, and more aligned with my values. I began reading about environmental sustainability and became fascinated by the importance, and the lack of awareness, surrounding the topic. If I could learn to excel in the military, despite questioning the good it provided, I should be able to excel in helping raise sustainability to its rightful place as a fundamental tenant of our society – a good that should go without question.

2. What attracted you to Columbia University?

Two things: The Earth Institute and New York City. I love the idea of a set of institutions and academic programs used as tools through which earth science is turned into policy and market solutions. It is a fantastic model demonstrated through programs like the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy and the M.S. in Sustainability Management. As we speak, 700+ scientists at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory are churning out the raw knowledge that we can use to create a better society through science-based decisions. This is something that is very important and exciting to me.

Tuckfelt has been active in Columbia university student organizations since arriving on campus
Tuckfelt has been active in Columbia university student organizations since arriving on campus

NYC also provides us with a unique lens through which to study sustainability because so many of the issues the city faces are demonstrative of the larger world. For example, we learn how NYC’s high population density has been turned into an advantage as it removes the necessity for private vehicles, encourages walking, biking and public transit, and forces people to interact with different cultures, values, and lifestyles. I don’t know of any other place in the U.S. with such a fascinating mosaic of people, and where students can reflect on their studies from so many different perspectives.


3. What skills and tools do you hope to acquire through the MPA-ESP program?

The ability to effectively and eloquently describe the problems of “unsustainability” and the associated solutions. When you start to study this field, you realize the problems are essentially limitless in their scope and number, which can be overwhelming. But I feel I’ve gained the confidence to talk about these issues effectively and confidently, and I hope that by the time I graduate, I can be seen as an up-and-coming subject matter expert who understands these issues and has a toolbox of solutions to apply.

4. What are your thoughts on the current U.S. political climate? What steps do you think need to be taken to bridge the gap between parties?

One of the scariest things I learned while studying military history was how effective armies have been at teaching their soldiers to view the other side as something less than human, making it easier for them to kill. We are still demonizing our enemies in many ways, and I believe it is the reason for what we are seeing in America politically between Democrats and Republicans. We have come to view members of the “other side” as less than us, preventing us from weighing their needs and ideas as we would our own. Both “sides” are guilty of this.

I believe the best way to bridge this gap is through education. The divisiveness that is so prevalent in the world is taught to children, but it doesn’t have to be. If we can nurture the compassion children feel instinctively, before the world tells them to be afraid of each other, we can prevent much of the conflict in the world. We also need leaders who are compassionate, while being educated, eloquent, and the right mix of confident and humble. There are few who fit this mold. However, as I reflect on my time at Columbia, I have met many who could grow to be these future leaders and will help solve the big challenges like climate change, inequality, and war.

5. What do you see yourself doing after the MPA-ESP program? What do you hope to accomplish in your career?

Mike with ESP Classmates
Mike with ESP Classmates

After the program, I would like to do one of two things: work for an organization that educates both the public and decision-makers on sustainability, or one that directly influences and creates sustainability policy. I view the goal of sustainability policy as providing the proper incentives for individuals and groups to make sustainable choices. Currently, our incentives are not at the size and scope we need to properly motivate the right people. Ultimately, I hope to be part of the movement that creates a fundamental paradigm shift away from short-term gains and towards the long-term well-being of people, planet, and economy.

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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6 years ago

Great interview Mike! Very well said and very inspiring 🙂

Jay r. Lewein
Jay r. Lewein
6 years ago

Thank you Mike for your service to our nation. Your future service will be infinitly more important. Through your eyes you have seen what truly needs to be accomplished to save not only our nation, but millions of lives thru sustainable actions. Best of luck in your future endeavors. You our truly a model for the best of our country’s veterans to follow. Sincerely , Jay