State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Student Spotlight, Part 2: 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 Ord贸帽ez Olaz谩bal,聽 Justas Paka拧ius, 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 Kiara, Justas, and Maris. Read our previous interviews with Divya, Clio, Heidi here, and stay tuned for the next senior spotlight highlighting other Sustainable Development student awardees!

Q&A with Kiara Ord贸帽ez Olaz谩bal

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

Take as many skills/actions classes as you can and apply for the internship and research opportunities offered by the Climate School!

What are your plans after graduating from the program?

I will continue working at Columbia鈥檚 Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN).

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

I have been an environmental activist since I was 16, and I thought the Sustainable Development program would be an ideal step in my education to continue working for better environmental and energy policy.

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

I enjoyed 鈥淪cience for Sustainable Development鈥 because it gave me more clarity about the physical systems behind climate change, natural disasters, water scarcity, and biodiversity loss, among other issues.

What was your biggest accomplishment while at Columbia?

Finishing my senior thesis on the economic and environmental impacts of mining on local communities in Peru. It was a lot of work but I am happy with the result.

Q&A with Justas Paka拧ius

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

Just like in any other area of life, the key is to always be curious and show interest in the material. The professors in the Sustainable Development program specifically and Columbia more generally are always open to meeting students whether for coffee or office hours and everyone should really take that opportunity. Reading, following the news and speaking with other students is a great way to stay engaged academically as well. Personally, I also enjoyed writing my bachelor thesis. Although by no means easy, the process of producing your own substantive work is extremely rewarding personally and professionally.

What are your plans after graduating from the program?

I intend to work for a while in finance in London before pursuing a graduate degree in political science.

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

It is hard to identify just a single class because they all brought something new to the table, but if I had to choose, Sonali Deraniyagala’s and John Mutter’s 鈥淒isasters and Development鈥 is probably my favorite class in the Sustainable Development program. The course merged the science behind disasters, such as earthquakes, and their short-term and long-term economic impacts. I found this interdisciplinary approach incredibly unique and very engaging.

How did the program shape your understanding of sustainability?

It helped me to understand that sustainability is not a goal but rather an arduous journey, full of trade-offs, difficult policy making, and set-backs.

What was your biggest accomplishment while at Columbia?

Alongside my friends and teammates Daniel LaFata, Lu Xi, Romain Cabanes and faculty advisor Jenik Radon, we won second place out of 27 in the Schuman Challenge, an annual policy competition organized by the EU Representative to the US. This year, the topic was on climate and security. Our team focused on how climate change is driving increased interest in Antarctica’s minerals and simultaneously is making it easier to access them. We specifically focused on the growing Russian and Chinese interests and belligerence in the region.

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

During my studies at Columbia, I worked with historian and journalist Paul Ham who I met at SciencesPo Paris, helping him research his forthcoming book. During the summer between junior and senior year I interned at Goldman Sachs’ Warsaw office.

Q&A with Maris Welch

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

It’s an interdisciplinary program, so lean into that! Explore systems-level thinking and big picture ideas 鈥 these are amazing skills that generalists bring to the table in addition to any specialized skills you might pick up in the program.

What are your plans after graduating from the program?

I’ll be working as a climate change researcher for ICF, a consulting firm in the DC area.

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

I was interested in environmental and climate issues, but had a political science background from the dual BA program. I thought that Sustainable Development was a great opportunity to combine those interests.

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

鈥淕IS for Sustainable Development鈥! Coming into the program, I was so intimidated by the STEM aspects of this degree, and they ended up being my favorite part. Learning to think about data spatially has totally transformed the way I think about data visualization and problem solving.

How did the program shape your understanding of sustainability?

The program really highlights how you can never solve one issue in isolation. Even though we like to perceive ourselves as separate from nature, humans also exist in larger ecosystems, including the social and economic ones we’ve constructed. You have to understand how systems interact in order to target solutions to some of our most pressing issues.

What was your biggest accomplishment while at Columbia?

Finishing my thesis! I’m so glad I chose to write one, but it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I definitely recommend it to people who might have a niche interest that they want to explore but isn’t really offered through a course here.

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

My passion for climate issues is driven by my love for the outdoors. I was a member of Columbia Rock Climbing Club, worked as an outdoor science educator, and even as a sawyer on a trail crew for the Forest Service. And I used all of my breaks to pursue my own climbing and backpacking adventures!

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

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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