State of the Planet

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Rising Senior Shares Experience Taking on Sustainable Development and a Dual Degree

By Alana Masciana

Elza Bouhassira is a current student in the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development, and spent her first two years in France as part of the Dual BA program between Columbia and the Paris Institute of Political Studies (“Sciences Po”). We caught up with her about her experiences and her emerging outlook on sustainable development.

What drew you to the sustainable development major after studying at Sciences Po?

The sustainable development major is great way to stay connected to the social sciences, which I studied at Sciences Po, while also branching out into the natural sciences. I think it is important to understand the basic science behind sustainability issues in order to make useful changes in other areas, and the program provides that foundational scientific knowledge.

What was the transition to Columbia like after spending two years abroad? Is there anything you would do differently?

The transition to Columbia was a big change. The student community at Columbia is much larger and there is a greater variety of disciplines to choose from than at Sciences Po. If I were to go back, I would have reached out to the department earlier. At the start of the year, I was considering different possibilities—and what helped me make a decision were the conversations I had with current students and the department.

How do you think participating in the dual program has added value to your academic pursuits in the SDEV program?

Participating in the Dual BA Program allowed me to come into the SDEV major with a solid background in the social sciences, which has proved useful in introductory classes like Challenges of Sustainable Development. Additionally, the international perspective I gained by studying in France for two years gave me a broader point of view that I think is especially valuable in SDEV due to the international nature of many of the challenges.

What do you think is the most important sustainability/environmental policy challenge?

One of the most important sustainability policy challenges has to do with cleaning up the oceans and protecting oceanic wildlife. The oceans are not under any one country’s sovereignty and many oceanic species migrate across huge distances—making it a challenge to protect them as they pass through various jurisdictions on their journeys. Similarly, all countries create plastic pollution and it is impossible to say which country created which pieces of the pollution, complicating the possibility of assigning responsibility for implementing a solution. The complexities in sovereignty and assigning responsibility make sustainability issues related to the oceans fascinating.

What is your favorite class in the Sustainable Development program so far and why?

This past spring, I participated in the Oil Rights and Development simulation and I really enjoyed the experience. The course spans two full days, and in the simulation each student is part of a team and plays the role of a character in a fictitious country where oil was found (for example, some characters worked for oil companies, the government, and NGOs). By participating in these negotiations, seeing how the various teams made deals, and discovering which tactics succeeded, I was able to understand how such negotiations play out in a way that I could not have learned by studying in a traditional classroom setting.

What has been your biggest accomplishment and challenge while in the program?

My biggest accomplishment in the program so far has been my final project for GIS for Sustainable Development. I did a site suitability analysis to locate areas for dark sky parks in New York State, based on a set of criteria, and created a scientific poster to display the maps that I made. I was proud to have been able to do a research project in GIS after only one semester using the software! (The professors of the course played a big role in that.) However, I do not think I have reached my biggest challenge in the program yet. I intend to write a thesis next year, and I believe that writing my thesis will be the most challenging part of the program. I am really looking forward to the task and hope it will be a rewarding experience!

Are you involved in any student groups on campus?

Outside of class, I am a staff photographer at the Columbia Daily Spectator, a marketing officer at TEDxColumbia University, social media chair at Consilience the Journal of Sustainable Development, a peer mentor for the Dual BA Program, and captain of a co-ed intramural soccer team. Joining these different groups helped me to meet students outside of my class in the Dual BA and become acquainted with Columbia’s student culture.

What tips do you have for other students in the dual BA program who are interested in pursuing the sustainable development major or special concentration?

Don’t hesitate to reach out to the department or current students in the years above you if you have any questions about the program, and dive into new subjects—even if you do not have much experience with them—because the professors in the department are wonderful and you will come away with valuable knowledge.


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. To learn more about the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development, visit our website or contact Program Manager Cari Shimkus at

Alana Masciana is an intern for the Office of Academic and Research Programs at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. She is an undergraduate student at Barnard College.

* Responses have been edited for this post.

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