State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Sustainable Development Award Winners Reflect on Their College Careers

The Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development is proud to celebrate the hard work and outstanding dedication of its recent graduates. Six students from the class of 2023 earned Departmental Honors: Divya Agarwala, Clio Dakolias, Heidi Lichtl, Kiara Ordóñez Olazábal, Justas Pakašius, and Maris Welch.

Sustainable Development Departmental Honors are awarded to students with a grade point average of at least 3.7 in their major courses and at least a B+ in both courses of the senior thesis seminar.

In this spotlight, we caught up with Divya, Clio, and Heidi to learn about their post-graduation plans, their understanding of sustainability, and their advice to current students. Stay tuned for more senior spotlights highlighting other Sustainable Development student awardees!

Q&A with Divya Agarwala

What tips do you have for students who wish to complete the Sustainable Development program?

1. Subspecialize. While sustainability is often thought of as a speciality in and of itself, it truly is so broad, and can be applied to any industry. So, choose some sectors (or skills, like coding/GIS) to begin specializing in! Personally, I found myself gravitating towards transportation, energy, and infrastructure, and chose classes and internships accordingly. In this vein, pursue a minor if you have space. I found the business concentration to be helpful in applying SusDev concepts and honing in on my interests.

Overall, I found ‘specializing’ to be super helpful in highlighting my skills on my resume and when interviewing. No one is holding you to what you choose, it’s really more about marketing yourself.

2. Intern! Hands-down, my best experience in undergrad was taking my junior spring off to work on the Tesla charging team. I am confident that doing a semester-long internship taught me so much more than if I was just there for the summer. Interning on the Earth Institute communications team before was great prep!

3. Find a community. As ex-Ecoreps co-president, this post would be remiss without a shameless plug. I made some of my best friends, and met my future roommate, through Ecoreps’ weekly meetings. I also highly recommend the SEE-U (Summer Ecological Experiences – Undergrad) program. I participated in the NYC option and made so many friends, learned about green agriculture, and got SusDev credits. What else could one ask for?

What are your plans after graduating from the program?

Taking a gap year! I plan on solo backpacking in Europe and working on sustainability-related content creation. I think a lot of work needs to be done in discussing the nuances of environmental issues.

What drew you to the Sustainable Development major or special concentration?

Don’t think I need to sell anyone here on the importance of tackling climate change- like many, I see it as one of our biggest and most pressing societal challenges. SusDev truly puts you at the forefront of this global discussion. Classes feel incredibly relevant, and everyone in the department from students to faculty is exceptionally passionate and engaged. Truly a lovely, supportive group to be around!

What was your favorite class in the Sustainable Development program and why?

“Solid Earth Systems” with Dr. Sidney Hemming. Her passion and excitement for geology is incredibly contagious and led me to cultivate a newfound appreciation for the field. Wish I could’ve taken it in person!

How did the program shape your understanding of sustainability?

Majoring in SusDev helped me develop a wide, systems lens, which is key in better understanding the scale and causes of environmental challenges and evaluating potential solutions.

What was your biggest accomplishment while at Columbia?

Landing my Tesla internship after tons of rejections — persevere!

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

I’ve tried everything from Consilience (Journal Editor) and RHLO (Furnald Hall Council President) to the Multicultural Business Association (VP). I also lived in Greenborough, the environmental SIC, and worked for the Multicultural Recruitment Committee as a tour guide. I definitely pared down on extracurriculars through the years to focus on Ecoreps and classes. Also, I highly recommend COÖP. Yes, it is a cult.

Q&A with Clio Dakolias

What tips do you have for students who wish to complete the Sustainable Development program?

The program offers such a wide variety of courses — take classes in as many different focus areas as you can! SusDev is great in part due to its interdisciplinary nature, and I loved the opportunity this provided to learn about a diverse range of subject matters.

What are your plans after graduating from the program?

I’m traveling this summer and then working for a year before going to grad school.

What drew you to the Sustainable Development major?

At the beginning of college, I had a really hard time selecting a major — there were different aspects of many majors that I liked. The SusDev major allowed me to explore how my interests function in tandem, such as policy and environmental science. Also, within the major, you have a lot of freedom to explore courses and topics that interest you, which really appealed to me.

What was your favorite class in the Sustainable Development program and why?

The Senior Capstone Workshop! We created an electrification plan for Columbia’s vehicles, our group just had so much fun working together. It also was great to experience working on questions concerning sustainability in a team. Such interdisciplinary questions are tackled so much more effectively when diverse viewpoints work together in a collaborative space.

What was your biggest accomplishment while at Columbia?

I think my senior thesis, which explored migration and environmental stress in West Africa! While quite a stressful experience at times, it felt so fulfilling to complete. I gained critical insight into qualitative research processes, and learned how to present my research more effectively, both orally and in writing.

Q&A with Heidi Lichtl

What tips do you have for students who wish to complete the Sustainable Development program?

Enjoy and appreciate the full breadth of the SDEV program, which gives us such an incredible survey of the knowledge and skills that will help us to sustain and improve the world. That being said, though, don’t be afraid to get specific and follow what intrigues you. A class on food, public health, and policy my junior year followed by an incredible course on qualitative research methods for SDEV with Lisa Dale — both somewhat random choices for me that just sounded intriguing — ended up totally reshaping my passions and giving me a whole new outlook on my plans post-graduation.

I have felt particularly grateful for the SDEV program because of the passion and desire for engagement that our professors and administrators have. Make sure to take advantage of their incredible wealth of knowledge and other resources that they are happy to give you, not just in regards to course content or planning at Columbia but also to think about your future and what in the wide world of SDEV-related careers that are available for us following graduation.

I fell in love with Sustainable Development because of its breadth, its positive ethos, its deep relevance to the world, and the passion displayed by my teachers and classmates. While you get to explore the SDEV program through coursework, remember to still be looking beyond it: take opportunities to do relevant work whenever you can, reach out about internships and funding opportunities, write a thesis on something you’re passionate about. Get excited for the world beyond Columbia and all the ways that you can use what you’ve learned to change it.

What are your plans after graduating from the program?

I’ll be spending the next year in Spain solidifying my Spanish skills and taking time to refine my passions and plans for the future while I teach English to children at a public school. I’m eventually hoping to find a graduate program that combines my passions for community health, food systems, and refugee health crises, particularly in Latin America, where my family is from. I’m excited to refine my passions and deepen my knowledge of the world, and I’m also just really excited to have more time to pursue personal passions and projects including continuing the research I did for my senior thesis project working with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene on their Stellar Farmers Market program.

What drew you to the Sustainable Development major or special concentration?

It was so expansive and was the first subject that combined all the things I loved about biology and psychology and sociology and ecology and put them towards this incredible goal of helping the world sustain itself. I have always been passionate about helping people and giving back for all the opportunities that have been given to me, and SDEV showed me a way to not only help people but also use my passions and personal skills to do so in such an incredible and engaging way.

What was your favorite class in the Sustainable Development program and why?

The capstone workshop class was a really incredible and rewarding experience for me for so many reasons. Firstly, working on a team was interpersonally amazing in allowing me to connect with my classmates in a really small and focused working environment. It taught me that being a part of a team is definitely something I want in the future and then gave me the skills to be able to do so. Also it was just really rewarding to actually apply not only my specific knowledge but also more generally my critical thinking and other skills to produce something for our client. I found it deeply rewarding not to mention really fun! I was also very lucky to have a great client (CU Transportation) and an absolutely incredible professor, Jenna Lawrence, who supported us through the whole process, was a caring and knowledgeable mentor, and maintained a passionate, positive energy throughout the process.

What was your biggest accomplishment while at Columbia?

Working on and finishing my senior thesis on the Stellar Farmers Market program in NYC. It was a long and challenging process that taught me a lot and was ultimately incredibly rewarding. It also helped me fully realize my passion for research and community health. I’m looking forward to continuing to refine the research with my mentor Pam Koch and hopefully get it published!

For information on the program and upcoming events, please visit the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development website.

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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