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From the Peace Corps to Columbia: Planting Trees and Ideas with Kelsey Wooddell

Kelsey Wooddell is a current student in the MPA Environmental Science and Policy Program. She was interviewed by ESP intern Emily Jager to learn more about why students with science backgrounds join the program.

Kelsey Wooddell MPA Environmental Science and Policy student

Why were you interested in attending the MPA ESP program?

This program felt like the natural continuation of my work and my studies before attending Columbia – I studied ecology and evolutionary biology, environmental engineering, and policy studies as an undergraduate at Rice University.

While at Rice, I volunteered for the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center on the longest running experiment that looked at the effects of increased carbon in the atmosphere on wetlands.

Following the focus on science, I transitioned to working for a think-tank that focused on researching environmental policies in Europe. A lot of the policies we analyzed seemed to be implemented,  but they weren’t very effective. From this experience, I realized that in order for environmental science to have an effect on a global scale, it needed to be integrated more effectively within policies.

After I graduated,  I wanted to learn more about how environmental policies affect people on a community scale, so I joined the Peace Corp in Peru. While I was in the Peace Corp, my two biggest projects were focused on environmental education and reforestation.

Reforestation project in Peru

In my first year, I helped a member of the community establish a tree nursery and by the second year it was self-sustaining. We planted over 12,000 trees in 2 years, but what was more important was that the program was self-sustaining and that the community was engaged in the project – which provided the assurance that it would last.

The community was adjacent to a national park, but the whole area had gone through a lot of deforestation, so it was in the “transition zone” between national park and normal use area. Within the national park you can only plant native trees but within the transition zone it’s not as strict.

For this project, I was really interested in planting this native tree called quenual (polylepsis in English/scientific name). It’s my absolute favorite tree and it has a lot of ecological benefits, but they grow very slowly, you can’t sell them, and the local people think they are unattractive. So I learned an important lesson- that you can’t impose your own agenda on a community just because you’re starting a project there. If you want to plant trees, or implement any solutions- you need to take into account community preferences and/or get buy in for new ideas.  The local residents wanted to plant eucalyptus and pine, so our plans shifted and included a compromise.  Eucalyptus is not ideal for reforestation, but a bad tree is better than no tree when comes to erosion and landslides.

Kelsey giving a lecture at the First International Congress of Social Responsibility at the National University of Trujillo

Another point we had to take under consideration is that most national environmental policies in Peru were not very well known in the small rural communities in the mountains I was working in- which really emphasized the need for local administration of environmental actions.

Is there an area of environmental policy or management that you are most interested in? 

I’m most interested in conservation at the community level, incorporating education and engaging stakeholders. A lot of places that are the most vulnerable to climate change are also the least well off economically, so you don’t want to totally restrict their development because the livelihoods of residents are often intrinsically connected to the natural resources around them. Policymakers need to realize that it’s very challenging to balance people’s livelihoods with conservation. I really want to develop policies that create environmentally sustainable livelihoods and still allow for economic development on an international level. I think this includes community level planning, education, and capacity building. If an NGO comes into a community and does a project and leaves, it’s not going to work – you need to build the capacity of the people who are going to be there to sustain the projects.

 What do you like about the MPA ESP program?

I think it is important that the program provides future policymakers with an environmental science background. The science is lacking in a lot of policies – people just don’t know the science behind what they’re doing.

The program is designed to be collaborative. I have a science background, so I was really able to help my student colleagues during our “summer of science.” When we focused on policy and management issues, other students helped me. It really balances out everyone’s expertise. Our cohort is such a great community, and it’s a great network and support system. 

What has been your favorite elective class so far?

Financing the Clean Energy Economy with Curtis Probst, an alumnus of the program. 

Can you share a memorable experience that you’ve had in the program?

Prior to orientation, a recent graduate of the program told me that you’ll make friends that you will bond so closely with you wont be able to remember how they were not in your life before. And they were completely right – within a few months-what did I do before this and before I met these people? 

What are you interested in pursuing after graduation? Have your post-graduation goals changed at all during your time at Columbia?

I didn’t know if I would like New York before I started the program, but I really do, I love New York.  I’m looking forward to finding a job here and experiencing more of what the city has to offer after our studies are over.

Professionally, I didn’t have a specific goal coming into the program. I figured this program would help me hone my interest, and it definitely has. I haven’t changed my interests in general, but they have gotten more defined. I want to work on capacity building, education and community planning for conservation and environmental sustainability in a nonprofit or large organization such as the United Nations, Wildlife Conservation Society, The Nature Conservancy, or the United Nations Development Program.

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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