By Shaun Daniel, GCSC Research Associate
When he walks this spring, Mike Christensen will be the University of Utah’s first graduate with an Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate in Sustainability. Christensen leads the way for a growing number of students working toward their own certificates.
Launched in 2015, the certificate program is designed to augment existing graduate programs by offering an explicit focus on sustainability. It also incorporates interdisciplinary themes, skills, and approaches to thinking and living.
The idea for the program came out of the Global Change and Sustainability Center (GCSC) Executive Committee’s wish to formalize a curriculum that would give graduate students the opportunity to work as an interdisciplinary cohort to solve real problems around the challenges of sustainability. At the same time, Steve Burian, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Dan McCool, a professor of political science, were serving as campus sustainability curriculum co-directors and working on crafting their own certificate opportunities for students.
“We realized the synergies of working together,” says Brenda Bowen, director of the GCSC, “And we spent the next two years meeting with faculty, students, and administrators from across campus to develop the program.”
For his part, Christensen found the certificate option a good fit, after he had already been involved in some of the classes. Initially, he chanced upon an email one day that said there was still room in a GCSC program. So he signed up.
Christensen remarks, “It was sort of a baptism by fire into the GCSC,” as he started attending seminars and classes, and joined the 2014 Global Changes and Society class cohort in working on air quality.
“I think it’s a great program,” Christensen says. “The whole involvement with the GCSC and Sustainability Office has been fun. It’s been great having exposure to students and faculty who are on campus, and realizing that sometimes the answers to the things you’re trying to solve lie in other parts [of campus].”
Bowen notes, “We want the graduate certificate experience to give students a strong grounding in the concepts and complexities of sustainability. We hope that they will have a clear understanding of what their background and academic expertise can contribute towards finding creative solutions to complex problems, and will also have a strong appreciation and respect for what other disciplines bring to the table. We hope that they will have gained experience working with an interdisciplinary team to define and solve a problem.”
Abby Ivory, another student in the certificate program, who is pursuing a master’s degree in Business Administration, expresses an appreciation for the diverse experiences she has had in the certificate program. “I wanted an experience from all angles, not just business school,” she says.
While Ivory’s interest is in conservation finance, she remarks that she enjoyed the chance to take a number of different courses, including one on green architecture.
“They were phenomenal,” she says of the classes. “It’s a chance to gain a broader understanding of what sustainability is, and how it affects us from different angles.”
The Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate in Sustainability program currently includes students in programs such as Communication, Public Administration, Geology, Environmental Humanities, and Modern Dance.
Elizabeth Ivkovich is in the latter group. A Master of Fine Arts candidate in Modern Dance, Ivkovich says, “The certificate has helped me expand my own ideas and interests about where I exist in the dance space, and the kind of work that I want to do. It has also expanded my definition of dance. Is it dancing when I do community engaged environmental justice research? Now, I think so.”
Likewise, Christensen sees sustainability going beyond any one type of knowledge or activity. For example, though his studies are focused on City and Metropolitan Planning, recognizing the importance of social justice, he has been involved with the American Civil Liberties Union and their efforts to lower the rates of incarcerated individuals in the U.S. Christensen says, “That’s a waste of resources, both on the amount of money it takes to keep people in prison, and also the fact that you’re literally wasting people.”
Christensen adds, “If something is unequitable, it’s unsustainable. And so it goes way beyond the environmental or economic aspects of it.”
Director of sustainability education Adrienne Cachelin agrees. She says, “So often sustainability is understood only as a set of behaviors, or only as ecological science. I love the certificate program because the equity piece of sustainability really comes through, as Mike suggests, and we can get a sense of how complex sustainability is and how the many disciplines are integral.”
Christensen observes, “Even in my department it’s not often explicitly stated, and yet you quickly realize that if we build a system that makes it so that people can’t make their ends meet in their lives, then it’s going to fall apart eventually.”
To that end, Christensen has been involved in the U’s Sustainability Action Plan, working on transportation issues. He says, “One of the things that I want to try to help figure out is our carbon footprint. While we’re doing much better with reducing our carbon footprint as far as our day to day travel goes, what about things like conference travel? That’s a little bit harder thing to do.”
As a solution for the University, he proposes a group of students – “transit geeks like me,” he says – who could be a resource to people looking at creative transportation options when traveling.
This looking beyond oneself, looking beyond the present moment, and its structures to what more is possible, would seem to be a commonality among the students pursuing an Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate in Sustainability. No doubt students will continue to shape the program, as they in turn are shaped by it in the years ahead.
“It just hit me that I’m not really done,” Christensen says of his own involvement in sustainability. “It continues on.”
Those interested in applying to the certificate program may do so at http://environment.utah.edu/gradcert/index.html. The deadline for fall admission to the program is April 1.
Shaun Daniel is a graduate of the Environmental Humanities program (M.S., 2015) and a research associate with the GCSC and ENVST, where his work is focused on sustainability education, research, and expanding global learning.