Interview with Environmental Studies Student at the University of Chicago, Ms. Sapna Thottathil

Interview with Environmental Studies Student at the University of Chicago, Ms. Sapna Thottathil

At the time of this interview, Sapna Thottathil was a student at the University of Chicago. She has since graduated with a degree in Liberal Arts, with concentrations in Environmental Studies and International Studies. Ms. Thottathil won a Morris K. Udall Scholarship for Environmental Excellence and Leadership in 2003, which helped her further her studies by attending a retreat with other scholarship winners.

Ms. Thottathil interned with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Environment, Science, and Technology office of the U.S. Embassy in Paris. She was an active volunteer and leader for environmental organizations on campus and continues to volunteer for organizations in the community. She believes that extracirricular activities are an essential supplement to what is learned in the classroom.

Here, Ms. Thottathil shares her perspective on education and the pursuit of a career in Environmental Studies.

About Sapna Thottathil & Her Career Path

Please tell us about what sort of career you plan to pursue.

I would like to be involved in a field pertaining to policy and the environment. I would love to be a part of changing American society to become more sustainable and less consumer-driven. I have these dreams of leading an NGO or being a key environmental lobbyist. We'll see (I still have to decide whether or not I want to go to law school!).

How did you first become interested in environmental issues?

I have to admit that there wasn't one incident that set off a light bulb in my head. I have always been moved by the beauty and peace of nature. However, much of my inspiration can be traced to one local source: the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, an organization where I volunteered. It was there that I saw, smelled, and walked about what I desire to protect. Seemingly simple activities, such as habitat restorations, strengthened my commitment to the environment. Participating in projects like restorations enabled me to observe the outdoors and to understand the importance of preserving ecosystems. I became familiar with bird calls, learned the topography of the land, and watched the changes in the wildflowers from week to week. I became better acquainted with nature.

Please tell us a bit about your volunteer work. Did you have a particular passion for these causes? How important is it to have a passion for a cause you are volunteering for?

Having a passion is very important. It is because I am passionate about the environment that I am able to stay up late organizing activities, or go out and talk to people for hours about grandfathered coal plants, or energize people in club meetings. Knowing that there are Red-Winged Blackbirds "konk-la-reeing" in a marsh just sold for development, and mountaintops that are being completely flattened for coal mining riles me up to fight for the environment.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far?

Last year I won a Morris K. Udall Scholarship and was able to spend a few days in Tuscon, Arizona, where I met other student environmentalists. I am also proud of having had great internships in two different cities (Washington D.C. and then Paris) the past two summers. I am glad to know that I have the skills to navigate myself around new cities, learn another language, and situate myself comfortably in work settings.

How do you plan to make a difference in the environmental and international realms?

At this point in my life, I am trying to figure out what the best way to make a difference is. Would that be with a law degree? As a lobbyist? An activist? I do believe in the importance of influencing the people and situations around me, so while I'm figuring out where my place is in the bigger picture, I plan on being involved in local issues.

Please tell us about pursuing and winning the Congressman Morris K. Udall Scholarship for Environmental Excellence and Leadership in 2003. What inspired you to go for this award? How has it helped you?

A previous winner nominated me, and I decided to take the time to apply. I was excited about spending the time in Tuscon, meeting other environmentalists. That weekend really inspired me. It was great to spend time with lots of other people who have a similar way of looking at the world. Scholars receive $5,000 in tuition reimbursement, which was definitely an incentive in pursuing the scholarship. The award was helpful, especially since my internship in Paris was an unpaid one. I was able to take care of my summer costs and not be as stressed out about the school year, thanks to the scholarship. For more information on the Udall Scholarship program, please visit

About Environmental Studies

Please tell us about your environmental education so far, and what you have liked and disliked about it.

I am an Environmental Studies major at the University of Chicago. I have enjoyed that, at the U of C, Environmental Studies is a very interdisciplinary program. I was forced to take Statistics and Economics classes (subjects I'm not too keen about), but as a result, I have necessary background knowledge that will be useful when defending environmental issues.

Have you done any fieldwork that has enriched your experience at the University of Chicago?

I have been involved with the environmental groups on campus, the Environmental Concerns Organization (ECO) and the Green Campus Initiative (GCI). Through ECO, I worked on an environmental justice campaign to clean up grandfathered coal plants in a minority community. GCI has been my main focus because I was in charge of it this past year. GCI focuses on the university community, and through this group, we helped secure 500-600 ft. of space for a native plant garden and we started a successful battery recycling program. We recycle at least 70 pounds of batteries every 10 weeks. We also introduced organic food into the dining halls and instituted a food box program, where students and staff agree to buy boxes of organic food from local farms either weekly or bi-weekly. We also have an active wind campaign going on (we're trying to get the school administration to invest in renewable energy).

You are pursuing both Environmental Studies and International Studies. How did you choose this double-major combination?

I really liked the interdisciplinary approaches of both concentrations, and there was a significant overlap, which is why I chose them.

Environmental Studies can be a broad field. Did you focus your studies on a particular aspect of the field?

I focused on areas such as international policy, multilateral treaties and NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations].

Education In The Field: What to Expect

Do you have any advice on how future college students can pick a good school?

Don't pick a school for just one reason - make sure there are many aspects of the school that you find appealing before going there. I recommend visiting, and not on the first beautiful spring day, either, where appearances may be deceiving.

How important do you think it is for faculty members to have extensive research or professional experience? In other words, does it make a difference to have faculty with "real world" experience?

As long as faculty members are knowledgeable, or at least know of good resources if they don't have the answers, that is fine. Also, I feel that faculty members are great not just for the information they may have, but for the mentorship and guidance they can provide.

What should students try to get out of their environmental education?

I think students should have a good solid foundation of history, economics, sociology, statistics, and especially theory, and THEN apply that to the real world. I believe in thinking and discussion, but then also application. Students should practice what they learn, and get out of the college bubble.

In your opinion, what do you think are the most respected college and university environmental programs? Do you think it makes a difference to graduate from a prestigious school?

I'm not sure what the most respected college and university environmental programs are. I came to the U of C for a liberal arts education. Like I mentioned earlier, while having a focus is a good thing, background knowledge is important. Personally, I don't think it should be necessary to come from a respected environmental program. I think it's more important to be smart, motivated, and passionate. And I also believe in having experiences, like extracurricular activities, as a supplement to education.

Job Information and Advice

You've had a number of jobs and internships related to the environment. Please tell us a bit about your experiences.

In 2002, I interned with the U.S. EPA in Washington D.C. There, I partnered with academic institutions, Federal agencies, and the private sector to find creative solutions for waste minimization in laboratory research. To assist with finding solutions, I developed a survey for agencies and universities to gauge interest in exploring better environmental incentives in Federal research grants. I was then awarded a grant to continue this research during the school year in Chicago. I also created educational brochures, and researched and designed support tools for EPA staff and the public relating to EPA's issuance of the new Agency-wide Public Involvement Policy to improve public participation processes.

In 2003, I interned with the Environment, Science, and Technology office of the U.S. Embassy in Paris, France. There, I helped out with two major AIDS conference. I furthered U.S. cooperation with France, NGOs, religious leaders, and other countries in the Global Fund International Meeting and the International AIDS Society Conference, and I coordinated the visits of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and other officials attending the conferences, and was able to be a representative of the U.S. at many multilateral meetings.

What did you like the most about these jobs? What did you like the least?

I liked being out in the working world, meeting new people, and seeing important figures discuss policies right in front of my eyes! It was exciting. I loved being in new cities and growing as a person. Regarding my internship with the State Department, it was a different and useful perspective to be a part of these conferences from the inside, as opposed to reading about them in the papers or attending a protest. I am definitely interested in attending more global meetings with government leaders.

However, I also learned that I would not like to represent the U.S. Government again. As a Foreign Service officer, you stand by the U.S. Government. In the past few months in particular, and especially during these AIDS conferences, I had a hard time feeling good about the side I was representing. When and if I attend future global meetings, I'd rather represent an apolitical organization, or, even better, an environmental NGO.

On the plus side, I got to see how officials interact with each other, hear government gossip, and learn much about AIDS, malaria, and TB. I researched these diseases to write background reports for the Ambassador and other embassy officials. I saw how officials live, what goes into the daily life of a president, how they are informed of environmental issues, etc. It was eye-opening and it is something I will keep in mind when and if I interact with such people again.

What kinds of jobs would you recommend that undergraduate environmental students look for?

I'm trying to find jobs myself now... I recommend looking for all kinds of jobs. Environmental issues needs to be dealt with in every sector.

Do you feel that your experiences as an intern with the EPA enhanced your education? Why or why not?

I definitely understood what I had studied the classroom more, because I got to do things hands-on and see everything in real life, instead of just reading articles for class.

EDITOR'S NOTE: For more information about the educational and career outlook for Environmental Studies majors, click here.

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