Changing Lives in Chicago with Sustainable Development

by |May 3, 2018

By Chandler Precht

Wyatt Baker is a 2015 alumnus of the Sustainable Development (SDEV) Program.

We caught up with him to discuss the impact sustainable development has had on his life and his career transition.

Q&A with  Wyatt

How did you find your first position after leaving Columbia? What resources and methods did you find most useful?

Before graduating, I secured an internship at Core Digital Media in LA through a connection. The position sort of found me—foreshadowing major life events to come. I didn’t use many of the resources Columbia offered for job searches and placement, but I found that the vast majority of my peers who were most successful at finding positions had started their job hunt years before graduation.

What’s your current job?

Currently, I’m in my second year piloting a sustainable development program for high school seniors that I founded at a small, non-denominational Christian high school on the West Side of Chicago called Chicago Hope Academy.

Tell us about your transition from the tech industry to starting a program for at-risk youth, and what inspired you.

The transition from tech to education started when I googled ‘High schools near my work with wrestling.’ I started volunteer coaching and, upon forming relationships with some of the students, I quickly became aware of my ignorance/hubris. I wanted to ‘help people’ in the developing world so badly that I was blind to the fact that people needed help just a quarter mile from where I lived. I saw students lose multiple family members to gun violence. The amount of people killed in Chicago since 2001 is comparable to Americans killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. I started asking several questions and getting to know the students and their families. It made me realize that the issue was more so a product of rampant income disparity.

The decision to dedicate my life to was easy after meeting Bob Muzikowski, who founded Chicago Hope Academy. Muzikowsk, a Columbia University alum, founded the first little league for urban youth, which was the inspiration for the movie Hardball. He saw that Chicago was bleeding and sold half of his business to start a school. The school receives no government funding and operates a number of small businesses with the school being the sole shareholder. The revenue pays teacher salaries and we fundraise to cover the rest of our operating costs each year. Fun fact: roughly 20 percent of our staff are Columbia alumni!

What do you enjoy the most?

I love the ‘aha’ moment where the lightbulb goes off during the fourth quarter and students realize the subtle interconnectedness of the many disciplines within sustainable development. From astrophysics to earth science to global health, only sustainable development affords us the opportunity to be masters of our chosen field and literate enough in the others to make informed decisions on important policy issues. About 50 percent of my students from my first year entered a field related to sustainable development and my mentee was the school’s first Princeton admit. I am so proud of my students overcoming such overwhelming adversity.

What do you find the most challenging in your current work?

I find that getting the students to care about environmental issues is the most challenging aspect. Some students come in as first years having lived less than a mile from Lake Michigan but had never even seen the lake or know how to swim! It’s the first time I’ve seen young people completely devoid of appreciation for nature and it’s understandable as to why, yet it’s deeply troubling to me when I think about our collective future.

Are you able to utilize any skills and knowledge from the program in your day-to-day activities?

I’m not exaggerating when I say that every single sustainable development class I took through the program has been helpful to me, even beyond just teaching the subject matter to high school seniors. My ability to solve complex problems using qualitative and quantitative methods has served me incredibly well and I owe that to CU’s SDEV program.

What was your favorite course in the program, and why?

If I had to narrow it down to the top three it would be Introduction to Sustainable Development with Professor Kevin Griffin, Ecological and Social Systems for Sustainable Development with Professor Ruth Defries, and the Workshop in Sustainable Development with Professor Stuart Gaffin and Sarah Stender.

What courses in the program have been most useful to you professionally?

Environmental Risk and Disaster and the Workshop in Sustainable Development truly helped me develop my professional and business acumen; both classes allow students to apply their quantitative skills to real world problems.

What post-graduation advice would you give students in the program?

Find your niche within sustainable development and then find out what jobs fit not only your unique skill set but also your passion. Heavy workloads aren’t so bad when you love what you do.

Columbia’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development is an interdisciplinary program that addresses sustainable development through an understanding in the interaction between natural and social systems. It is offered through the Earth Institute in partnership with Columbia College and the School of General Studies. Participating departments and schools of the sustainable development major and special concentration include the Department of Earth and Environmental Biology; the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering; the School of International and Public Affairs and the Mailman School of Public Health. To learn more about the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development, visit our website or contact Program Manager Cari Shimkus at cshimkus@ei.columbia.edu.

Chandler Precht is an intern for the Office of Academic and Research Programs at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. She is an undergraduate student at Barnard College.

* Responses have been edited for this post.

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