By Chandler Precht
MJ Engel is an alumna of Columbia’s undergraduate Sustainable Development Program and a U.S. Fulbright Scholar currently studying in China. She provides insights about her Columbia experience along with sharing tips to current students in the program.
What did you do immediately after graduating from Columbia?
After graduating from the undergraduate Sustainable Development Program, I headed to China to begin my year as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar. Right now, I am finishing a four-month intensive Chinese language program in Harbin, China, as a recipient of a Critical Language Enhancement Award. At the end of October, I will be moving to Kunming, Yunnan, China to start my research topic. I will be investigating the agricultural land use change from tea to coffee and the transition’s impact on farmers, their communities, and their environments.
How did you find your current program? What resources and methods did you find most useful?
During my junior year at Columbia, I studied abroad with the program IHP Climate Change: The Politics of Food, Water, and Energy. That semester we travelled to San Francisco, Vietnam, Morocco, and Bolivia to learn about the myriad of ways people understand, adapt to, and organize against climate change. Studying abroad with this program was formative for me and deeply shaped how I think about climate and environmental justice as a transformative sustainable development framework. From this experience, I knew I was interested in a research fellowship abroad, and my professor recommended applying for a Fulbright fellowship.
What do you enjoy the most and what do you find the most challenging in your current program?
The freedom to apply an intensely interdisciplinary perspective to my research has been a creative challenge and, I think, the primary source of my intellectual growth. Working as an entirely independent researcher for the first time certainly poses challenges in terms of self-discipline and time management, but I am also finding that independent research, at its best, is deeply collaborative. I find myself learning all the time, from conversations with my Chinese roommate in the dining hall to political debates in a Chinese newspaper class to offhand conversations in the local bar. It has been fascinating and frustrating to observe American politics from abroad without an outlet to engage directly.
Are you able to utilize any skills or knowledge from the Sustainable Development Program in your day-to-day activities?
Writing my undergraduate thesis provided a solid foundation to prepare me for this year of independent research. Through writing my thesis with the support of a network of mentors, I was able to learn about and practice aspects of the research process such as applying for IRB [Institutional Review Board, an independent ethics committee], interviewing subjects, transcribing interviews, and weaving together a coherent story. I also developed a dual spirit of confidence and humility in my observations and position as a researcher. The confidence helps me to fight against imposter syndrome while the humility reminds me that as a researcher, my primary goal is to always work collaboratively and to lift the experiences and voices of the people sharing their stories with me.
What aspects of the Sustainable Development Program do you feel best prepared you for the workforce/graduate school?
At Columbia, I majored in Sustainable Development with a special concentration in Women and Gender Studies. I found the intersection of these two fields immeasurably helpful in developing a critical lens and set of tools through which to observe and to think through my experiences of the world.
What tips do you have for students who are intending to pursue the Sustainable Development major or special concentration?
Pair your major or special concentration with classes that will help you think through the connections between capitalism and climate change; do a senior thesis; build connections with New York City’s thriving environmental justice community; travel and study abroad responsibly.
Columbia’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development is an interdisciplinary program that addresses sustainable development through an understanding in the interaction between natural and social systems. It is offered through the Earth Institute in partnership with Columbia College and the School of General Studies. Participating departments and schools of the Sustainable Development major and special concentration include the Department of Earth and Environmental Biology, the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering, the School of International and Public Affairs, and the Mailman School of Public Health.
Chandler Precht is an intern for the Office of Academic and Research Programs at the Earth Institute. She is an undergraduate student at Barnard College.