State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Student Spotlight: Two Leadership Award Winners Reflect on Their College Careers

In spring 2020, two graduating students, Elizabeth Kokes and Carla Singson, were selected for the Stuart Gaffin Award for Leadership and Engagement in the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development. We spoke to them about their experiences on or off campus, and their plans for the future.

The Stuart Gaffin Award commemorates Professor Stuart Gaffin, who taught the Workshop in Sustainable Development from 2009-2019. The award honors leadership, impact, engagement and dedication, all of which were characteristic of Gaffin’s contributions to our Columbia community.

Elizabeth (Libby) Kokes

elizabeth kokes headshot

What was your biggest accomplishment while at Columbia?

Finishing school stronger than I imagined, after I took a leave of absence I never meant to take. After I had burnt myself out within weeks of finishing what was supposed to be my second-to-last semester, I had to reckon with myself. I was sitting at home that winter wondering how I’d dug my physical and mental health into a hole so deep. The next nine months to get myself back to Columbia charged me with asking what I really thought made up success versus failure. I’m stubborn, but I’ve started to internalize that the only real dangers are harboring a fear of failure and failing to reach out for help. Remembering that this past year allowed me to start just showing up, being open, and staying present.

Beyond the classroom, what extracurricular activities did you engage in?

Originally, I walked onto the Columbia Women’s Cross Country and Track Team. My (first) senior year, I co-captained the squad with women that I know will be some of my best friends forever after; we brought ourselves to the National Championships in Madison, Wisconsin. But that job was also 110 percent of my extracurricular experience for 3.5 years at Columbia. Returning to take another whack at my final year, I had more eligibility, but it felt needless to try rebalancing the pleasure and peril of being a D1 student-athlete. I realized I could run hard for myself, and also fly like something metamorphosed into my studies, into EcoReps, into Student Union for Sus Dev, into a future.

What is your next step? Do you know what sort of jobs or graduate work you wish to pursue in the field of sustainability?

I was nearly an environmental specialist with a “resource recovery” (waste management) company, but coronavirus contingencies have induced a hiring freeze that iced over that path. I still love reimagining trash and am motivated by the growth opportunities for circular economies. For now, I’m facing uncertainties that align in time with those awakening our country and world. I need to work somewhere that’s underscoring the one-and-sameness of environmental justice with racial and economic justice. I recently applied to be a litigation assistant with the Natural Resources Defense Council; they build coalitions for court and harness the knowledge and activism of front-line, often BIPOC, communities.

Any other thoughts or reflections you would like to share?

I would suggest that you can’t sustain anything else without first figuring out how to sustain yourself! One immediate and energizing way to get out of your head is to collaborate with other people; the sustainable development community is composed of some of the most distinct personalities. They make it so easy to just go for it and test things out, even if you make a fool of yourself.

Carla Singson

carla singson headshotWhat was your biggest accomplishment while at Columbia?

I’m most proud of completing my senior thesis on New York City parks — designing a research project, then doing the grueling work of collecting, processing and analyzing data was the most fulfilling experience of my college career. I’m also proud of initiating Consilience Considers, a collaboration between State of the Planet and the student-run journal Consilience, which uses the Earth Institute’s massive platform to amplify student voices.

Beyond the classroom, what extracurricular activities did you engage in?

I interned for the communications team of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, and well as TA’d for the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment’s online course, Natural Resources for Sustainable Development. On campus, I was involved with the blog of Consilience: the Journal of Sustainable Development, as well as the Student Union for Sustainable Development.

What is your next step? Do you know what sort of jobs (or graduate work) you wish to pursue in the field of sustainability?

I’m moving back to the Philippines to figure out where best I fit into our sustainability puzzle. Ultimately, I would like to work in environmental conservation, natural resource management or international development.

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