Student Spotlight: Graduating Seniors Reveal How to Thrive in Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development

by Minji Ko |July 17, 2020

Graduating seniors Nirja Bhatt, Maxwell Goodman, and Elizabeth Kokes were named to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. In this post, the three awardees discuss their experiences, achievements, and advice for the future students who aspire to study in the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development.

Q&A with Nirja Bhatt

Nirja Bhatt What drew you to the Sustainable Development Major or Special Concentration?

The whims and needs of the world are ever-changing, and I think choosing a major is a lot like gambling — trying to predict what the world will need in the next 5-10 years. Safe to say, my money is on sustainable development. One of my favorite authors, Naomi Klein, argues that climate change is a “civilizational wake-up call,” a powerful message delivered in the language of fires, floods, storms, and droughts. It is no longer about changing the light bulbs. It’s about changing the world. I saw the major as an opportunity to be at the forefront of a revolution, and to study a field as it was forming and unfolding.

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

My favorite class was, hands down, Climate Change Law, with Michael Gerrard. My single biggest takeaway from the class was this: At the end of the day, people are going to want their cold beers and hot showers. We cannot rely on behavioral change — the power of the tragedy of commons is simply too strong. Our best shot at solving the climate crisis is decarbonizing the economy — finding ways to get people their cold beers and hot showers in ways that emit less carbon, and this begins with laws and policies that are conducive to decarbonization. Also, shout out to Narayan Subramaniam for being the most wonderful TA.

What was your biggest accomplishment while at Columbia?

I would say my biggest accomplishment while at Columbia would be the segmented micro-credit model that I developed for our Capstone Workshop. Our team worked with an international NGO, Archive Global, to develop a launch strategy for their micro-credit program to finance home improvements in the Sawar District in Bangladesh. If implemented, I believe this model will enable vulnerable and marginalized groups, especially women, to have improved access to credit while also enabling micro-credit organizations to be financially sustainable.

Beyond the classroom, what extracurricular activities (internships, student organizations, etc.) did you engage in?

Some would call it naïve, but I didn’t come to Columbia with a strategy, just intense curiosity and a tendency to get easily excited by ideas. Some of the highlights include: a tech start up from the Columbia Start-up Lab on digitizing global supply chains; CU Students for Human Rights, where I focused on pushing to include mental health in Columbia’s health policies; a research assistantship at the Earth Institute working on urban green spaces and biophilia; and two internships at strategy and management consulting firms with a focus on sustainability and social impact — where I discovered that there is actually a job profile for the kind of work I was hoping to do!

What is your next step? Do you know what sort of jobs or graduate work you wish to pursue in the field of sustainability?

As of this March, I have started as an analyst at Dalberg Advisors. Dalberg is a global strategy consulting firm that works with government organizations, private sector corporations and multilateral international agencies on projects with a social impact focus. Moving forward, I hope to focus my work on renewable energy and urban development — but I’m very open to changing my mind. I also have an entrepreneurial itch and perhaps that will become a reality 5-10 years down the line as well.

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

I think I have two main tips: leverage the experiences and expertise of the faculty as much as you can, and tailor the program to your needs. Every time I would read about an interesting faculty member at the Earth Institute or came across a professor that I admired, I would make it a point to email them and set up a meeting. The second tip on tailoring the program refers to optimizing the inherent flexibility of the program. Think about what you want from the program and don’t shy away from applying for course substitutions. In my experience, the program truly is a collection of diverse yet like-minded people. I have probably learned more about sustainable development by talking to classmates about what they’re passionate about, than in any classroom.

Q&A with Maxwell Goodman

What was your biggest accomplishment while at Columbia?
Max Goodman headshot

My senior thesis was certainly the biggest in terms of ambition and hours spent, and it taught me a lot, but I found my results kind of disappointing. That’s in the nature of science sometimes; it’s hard not to get emotionally invested in your expected results. I think the thing I’m proudest of right now is the op-ed I wrote for the Consilience Journal. I was able to put in writing a really nuanced, and I think critical, idea about how we should communicate the climate threat to balance ourselves between apathy and overwhelm and get motivated to act.

Beyond the classroom, what extracurricular activities (internships, student organizations, etc.) did you engage in?

For my campus work-study, I worked as a math teacher and curriculum coordinator at Community Impact’s TASC program. We helped adult learners from upper Manhattan earn their high-school equivalency. Often it was a frustrating environment because our mission was so worthy, but our systems were inefficient, and we relied too heavily on volunteers. Struggling to reorganize and do right by my students really shaped my view of organizational change, which I was studying from afar in sustainability management classes.

I interned over the summer of 2019 as a Penn State Project Drawdown research scholar, where I investigated the potential magnitude of albedo-warming effects from afforestation in different ecoregions. This was my first large-scale GIS project, and I was honored that Project Drawdown took my results into consideration in their updated model.

What tips do you have for students who wish to complete the sustainable development program?

Because the field is so broad you’re faced with a tough balancing act: get exposed to the full range of sustainability thought, while building one or two professional skills that can “get you in the room” after you graduate. You want a clear and nuanced view of the world, but you also want to be able to influence it concretely for the better. Take “skills/actions” classes early to start thinking about the professional path you want to blaze. Talk to your professors who have worked outside of academia about their experiences. Challenge yourself to ask two questions in every class, every day, and steer the conversation towards impact whenever possible.

Q&A with Elizabeth (Libby) Kokes 

What drew you to the Sustainable Development Major or Special Concentration?

I honestly think it was the buzzwords. I was coming from Portland, Oregon and grateful to have grown up in such an evergreen state and the liberal, design-forward city that branded the whole place. My thought process was, “sustainability = green = progressive”; So, I got started in the major early because I didn’t question what it actually meant. That’s not to say I’m not thankful that I stuck with it, though. I’m just more thankful that drawing from so many different perspectives in this course of study helped shake me out of that rosy complacency. Our major is probably the most urgent and contentious program on the books. It’s all about looking straight at the obstacles we ourselves have put on the path to survival for current and future humanity. And then going, “Okay, let’s all roll up our sleeves and do the work, and keep doing the work.”

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

Ha! Choosing superlatives is really tough, and also sort of antithetical to a key lesson I learned in this class, one of my favorites: Economic and Financial Methods for Sus Dev, with Professor Satyajit Bose. The lesson was that if a decision is being made on the basis of a single metric, its process and the outcome are inherently unsustainable. And so the class was revolutionary for me, because it simultaneously versed me in the unrealistic assumptions of neoclassical economic frameworks and the tools of financial analysis while empowering us to critique how the logic of capitalism is broken and breaks people down.

What tips do you have for students who wish to complete the sustainable development program?

Moving through our major can sometimes feel like flopping around in the ocean — no judgement, just an expression of how many routes there are to carve. Given the scope, I would take the Intro to Sus Dev one-credit seminar early, if you rightly ask, “What is sustainable development?” (as a construct and a model more broader than an artificially bound “major”). It outlines the problems we study and explicitly associates those with the courses, professors, and outside opportunities that inform the path forward in the program. Then it’ll be easier to build a coherent framework of study, envision yourself as a practitioner, and avoid cherry-picking classes. And though our major can already ask a lot, if you have an inkling of special interest, add a concentration. I found many Sus Dev affinities and applications within the Hispanic Studies coursework, and got a critical systems-based historical grounding. Plus, multilingualism is so essential!

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