State of the Planet

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Student Spotlight: Exploring the Impact of Sustainable Development on Study Abroad Experiences

Simon Brody Caplan and Rachel Brzezicki, two students in Columbia’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development (SDEV), discuss their study abroad experiences and offer advice to students who wish to embark on similar adventures.

Q&A with Simon Brody Caplan

Simon Brody Caplan
Simon Brody Caplan during his study abroad trip. Photo credit: Simon Caplan.

Simon Brody Caplan, a fourth generation Angeleno, completed his SDEV degree in February ’24. He’s now back in Los Angeles, working as a consultant at EcoMotion, a sustainability solutions firm he interned for during the summer of 2023. Passionate about energy, local politics and environmental law, he also finds time for his hobbies, including climbing, surfing and martial arts.

What drew you to the Sustainable Development major?

I wanted to help conserve and protect a viable and beautiful natural world, but I believe we can’t do that unless peoples’ basic needs are met first. This led me to value the inclusive and socially involved framework that sustainable development provides. Also, environmental and climatic issues are urgent and well understood scientifically, so it’s time to focus on political and institutional interventions. I felt the sustainable development major would help me better understand how all these facets come together and relate to each other.

What are some of your career aspirations? How did the SDEV program affect those aspirations?

I want to go to bed at night feeling like my work makes a difference, even if it’s a small one. SDEV has done a lot to make me consider the ethics at play in our global economic system, as well as the consequences of global climate change. My education has made me more committed to taking action to combat climate change.

Share some information about your experience abroad.

The program I was part of at the School for International Training was called Argentina: People, Environment, and Climate Change in Patagonia and Antarctica. We were based in Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. Locals call Ushuaia the end of the world. It’s pretty far south, at the southern end of Tierra del Fuego. I’d say it’s the most beautiful landscape I’ve ever seen, but while abroad I also had the privilege to go to Antarctica, which may take the cake. My study abroad highlights include working with Magellanic penguins in the Beagle Channel, developing my own research project with a local biologist, lots of late dinners with a phenomenal host family, hikes of a lifetime and connecting with local folks.

Why did you want to spend a semester abroad and how long did it take for you to prepare for the trip?

I was interested in doing the program I chose for two main reasons: I wanted to improve my Spanish skills and revel in the natural beauty of the region. I’m definitely a much better Spanish speaker now, and spending time in the beauty of Southern Patagonia did not disappoint. I went abroad during my last semester, once I had completed all my SDEV requirements, so organizing the trip was administratively easy. Most of the administrative work took about a month and a half to wrap up.

What was the best part about your semester abroad? What was the most challenging part?

There were a lot of best parts about my semester abroad. It’s nice to feel like you’ve made a life somewhere and that you could return and live there at some point in the future. More specifically, it was amazing to have a strong connection to my host family, and it was great to be able to explore a new landscape. The independent study project option that SIT offers has the potential to be very interesting and I found my Independent Study Project far more illuminating and gratifying than my SDEV senior capstone project.

What advice do you have for students who want to do a semester abroad?

Do it, and give yourself some time to settle in and don’t worry too much in the first few weeks. Also, make an effort to connect with your host family if you have one and give yourself the opportunity to dive in by being flexible in lifestyle, diet, schedule etc.

Q&A with Rachel Brzezicki

Rachel Brzezicki

Rachel Brzezicki, originally from Kent County, Delaware, is currently a junior in the SDEV program. Beyond her academic pursuits, she finds inspiration in watching nature and travel documentaries. She loves to learn new languages on Duolingo and explore exhibits and events across New York City. Recently, she has delved into watercolor painting as a new creative outlet.

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

I’ve been conscious of climate change and sustainability for as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that I truly felt its urgency. I was applying to college during that time, looking for programs that would equip me with technical skills, field experiences and offer a holistic, actionable understanding of environmental studies. Columbia had the most unique and comprehensive program by far. The experiences I’ve had as a result constantly reaffirm my passion for sustainable development.

What are some of your career aspirations? How did SDEV impact those aspirations?

I am particularly interested in nature-based solutions and how they can improve communities’ quality of life while functioning in tandem with the ecosystems they are situated in. I want to contribute to research while using nature-based solutions as a tool for advocacy. SDEV has really made the most of the opportunities that come with being in NYC, but beyond it. I was able to spend a weekend in the Catskills learning about the management of NYC’s high-quality drinking water and the stakeholders involved in maintaining the system. I have gotten to hear from guest speakers and professors working in environmental justice, urban ecology and many other areas. At the same time, SDEV allows me to take courses in both the natural and social sciences. I enjoy field work and data analysis, but I also care about understanding historical and political contexts. SDEV lets me to do it all and build a holistic approach to sustainability.

Share some information about your experience abroad.

I spent the 2023 fall semester in Costa Rica, learning firsthand about the country’s cultural commitment to sustainability. I visited organic farms, agroforests, national parks, wildlife refuges, cloud forests and more. I spent the last month of the program working on a directed research project in Monteverde, studying the barriers to food access people in the community face, related to tourism, transportation and Verdes community currency. We spent a week surveying community members and farmer’s market vendors and visitors, gathering grocery pricing data and working with the Monteverde Institute to understand how a local farmer’s market is meeting its goals of addressing food security and facilitating social cohesion.

Why did you want to spend a semester abroad and how long did it take for you to prepare for the trip?

I have been long fascinated in Costa Rica’s commitment to sustainability and environmental protection. Since I was in high school, I have wanted to study abroad there to learn more about it. I applied for the program in February 2023. It did not take long to organize, especially since I was almost finished with the SDEV major and most of the courses I took in Costa Rica would fulfill the remaining requirements I needed.

What was the best part about your semester abroad? What was the most challenging part?

I learn best when I am actively in the field and this was the best program for that. Every day, every week was different, with much of our time spent on overnight field trips to different parts of the country. I didn’t have to worry about exploring the country on my own because we saw so much of it as part of the program. The most challenging aspect was a lack of personal space and privacy. There were 24 people in my cohort. We slept, ate and studied together. While I made some really good friends thanks to this structure, I wish I had more alone time to truly recharge when I needed to.

What advice do you have for students who want to do a semester abroad?

Make sure the program you are interested in aligns with your personal goals. Reach out to multiple alumni and ask their candid opinions, both good and bad.

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