Navigating Sustainable Development for My Career Through Capstone Projects – State of the Planet

Marcella Petiprin and Andrew Pontius, two seniors from the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development (SDEV) program, have completed capstone projects at Columbia’s Climate School. They share some of their experiences and advice for students who wish to pursue an academic career in sustainability.

Marcella Petiprin was born in Flint, Michigan, and grew up passionate about the outdoors with a focus on water. Her family owns a Christmas tree farm and she is enthusiastic about giving back to the community. She currently sits on the board of the Flint Classroom Support Fund.

What drew you to the sustainable development major or special concentration?

I was most excited to discover that the sustainable development curriculum was one that focused on the social and economic features of environmental and climate issues. While I initially came to Columbia as an environmental science major, I’d always been aware of and interested in the important interactions between people and the environment because, to me, understanding these interactions is fundamental to making the monumental changes necessary to combat climate change and environmental degradation.

What advice do you have for students who wish to enroll in the Sustainable Development program?

My advice is to take as many cross-listed courses as possible. The sustainable development major is unique in the wide breadth of courses offered in different departments, and I wish I’d taken advantage of more economics, engineering and environmental biology courses. Through the Sustainable Development program, not only have I been able to build a strong foundation in Earth and environmental science, I’ve been able to explore how to build upon them in the real world and to shift the priorities of businesses and governments toward a more sustainable future.

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

The energy law course with Michael Gerrard sparked my interest in renewable energy, motivated me to choose a career path in the energy sector, and gave me a robust foundation of knowledge which has been supremely valuable.

How did the program shape your understanding of sustainability?

The program has most strongly expanded my view of sustainability as being universally applicable. Sustainability is important and accessible to all people, all communities and all sectors. Sustainability is not only a discipline in and of itself, but a part of all other disciplines. While this certainly expands the scope of sustainability, it also gives me great hope for a future where sustainability is an ingrained practice for everyone.

Can you talk about your capstone project? 

The Pearl River in Jackson, Mississippi, has a major flooding issue exacerbated by a local precedent of permitting development in the floodplain and bureaucratic gridlock within local, regional and state authorities, which has prevented Jackson from moving forward on any new flood control projects for nearly 40 years. In a partnership facilitated by the Community and College Partners Program (C2P2), our capstone project has been working with the nonprofit Mississippi Citizens United for Prosperity (MCUP).

We developed a detailed community survey to make up for a historical lack of tangible data on the scale of flooding and the direct and indirect impacts on the local neighborhoods. Our visit to Jackson and direct engagement with the local community improved our understanding of the issue tremendously. We noticed there was a lack of understanding of relevant hydrology principles, available flood management options, as well as the private, nonprofit and political interests, which were all vying for public support, all stemming from a lack of centralized information.

Ultimately the capstone workshop was one of the most rewarding experiences of my academic career. It was incredibly meaningful to work with MCUP to develop deliverables that would be useful to the community and have a positive impact. My advice for future groups, those working with MCUP and in general, is not to underestimate nor underutilize local embedded knowledge. There is a long history of privileged students parachuting into communities with backgrounds that are often different than our own and attempting to implement what we idealize as effective solutions, but it is extremely important to remember that the people who live in these communities are informed, knowledgeable, thoughtful and should be engaged in problem-solving every step of the way.

Andrew Pontius, SDEV student

Andrew Pontius is originally from Bremerton, Washington. Before joining the Sustainable Development program at Columbia, he had an 11-year dance career in Seattle and Europe where he toured and performed in both ballet and contemporary dance. As a lover of the outdoors, Andrew has also lived on a sailboat in Seattle.

What drew you to the sustainable development major or special concentration?

During my time in Dresden, Germany, I had fantastic roommates who encouraged me to be more mindful about my consumption and to live more efficiently. That is how my concern with consumption and waste started, but then once back in Seattle, waking up in the morning to ash everywhere from nearby forest fires was a real wake-up call. Without the beauty of our natural world, what is there?

What advice do you have for students who wish to enroll in the Sustainable Development program?

Do it! We need everyone tackling sustainability problems and how to share resources for all. There are a lot of great classes to choose from, so be curious and try new things. The workload is heavy, but professors are very supportive. If you’re searching for a way to connect with a grassroots community organization, I would recommend completing a capstone with Radley Horton.

What were your favorite classes in the Sustainable Development program and why?

As someone with interests in the future of energy in the US, the energy law class with Michael Gerrard was one of my favorites and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about energy. The Catskills watershed class was a very cool way to learn about New York City’s deep roots and history for sourcing its water. All the sustainable development professors I’ve had the chance to work with were kind, approachable and inspiring.

How did the program shape your understanding of sustainability?

This is an empowering degree and I’m very thankful to have gone through such a rigorous yet enjoyable program. The program taught me that sustainability means different things for different people and that not everyone can afford to switch how they source and use energy or what products they buy. My classes have highlighted that sustainable development is a complex issue that needs to be addressed from a variety of angles.

Can you talk about your capstone project and what it entailed?

The Jackson Mississippi capstone group collaborated with a community organization on flood-related research. Together, we developed a comprehensive survey and crafted an informative story map for their webpage. Additionally, utilizing a Problem Tree framework—an approach to problem identification and solution generation used in engineering—we identified and connected various direct and indirect causes and effects of flooding in Jackson, providing valuable insights for the community.

The best part of the capstone project was working with local community members and getting to know people who fight for the well-being of their community. We conducted research while visiting the neighborhoods most impacted by persistent flooding. There are of course work expectations, but it is also somewhat freeform, so you have to apply yourself to learn and contribute to the group. The project taught me about comprehensive social and Earth sciences that informed both my personal and professional lives.

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