Studying the environment

Environmental studies students go on to a diverse variety of career paths, Undergraduate Assistant says

Students interested in the environmental studies department can specialize in one area with a subject of specialization (SSP) degree.
Image by: Justin Tang
Students interested in the environmental studies department can specialize in one area with a subject of specialization (SSP) degree.

How can one department take on the ambitious and arduous task of saving the Earth?

As an environmental studies student, I hear that question quite a lot. Whether it’s at a family function or at a party, people don’t seem to understand why I chose my program, or even what it really is.

“There seems to be a real need for a program like this because of emerging issues out there in the real world,” environmental studies professor Allison Goebel said. “It’s been a place for students to come together that are really interested in sustainability issues.”

The environmental studies program at Queen’s is one of the more recent programs offered at the University with a multitude of new classes being introduced in 1992 due to student demand.

“It’s something we came into a lot later than other some programs at other universities,” Goebel said.

The creation of the program began from a discussion between Queen’s professors that ultimately resulted in a Senate-approved decision to start a program with a distinct focus on environmental issues and how to solve them.

“We really emphasize the interdisciplinary [education] and I think that is different,” Goebel said. “We aim for students getting competence in scientific method and scientific understanding as well as the ability to understand the social sciences and humanities perspective.”

Goebel said the general criticism of this approach may be that because students are doing a little bit of everything, they aren’t learning enough of a single scientific area to develop an expertise.

She said the initiators of the program identified this issue before the program began at Queen’s, and successfully addressed it by implementing ‘subject of specialization’ (SSP) degrees, which allow students to concentrate more strictly on one topic, such as biology or toxicology.

“The focus on sustainability is the other thing that distinguishes the program,” Goebel said. “You’ll have lots of courses in various programs that may talk about environmental issues, and they’re really important and have important content, but we really try to keep focusing back on sustainability and how do we move forward.”

Goebel said the program has evolved over the years to keep up with emerging environmental concerns by adding a variety of issue-specific courses and a broader range of degrees.

“That was definitely a result of this student demand that we were facing. And I think that is a direct reflection of more concern that people have of what’s going on outside in the world,” Goebel said. “There are issues out there that really need to be looked at [and they] end up coming into the curriculum in some way.”

One example Goebel gave is of the emerging water-shortage crisis. Increased interest in this has led to a number of Queen’s faculty members conducting important research into the topic and courses being formed focusing specifically on global water issues.

The proliferation of environmental issues in the Queen’s curriculum has also led to an increase in activism in all departments.

“It’s a great time to be at Queen’s if you’re interested in the environment and sustainability in general. There’s tons of things to get involved with,” Ivana Zelenika-Zovko, MES ’11, said.

Zelenika-Zovko is in her second year of her master’s in environmental studies at Queen’s and is also the sustainability coordinator for the Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS). She said some of the projects that students may get involved with include the upcoming nationwide RecycleMania competition, monthly sustainability forums hosted by the AMS and volunteering for the Queen’s Sustainability Office.

“What I find most exciting is working with other departments and students and learning what they’re studying because we’re all interconnected,” she said. “If you put everybody’s knowledge together you can find that the world has a lot more wisdom and we can solve a lot of today’s problems.”

Zelenika-Zovko said that her interest in the environmental studies program stemmed from an innate ecological mindset and a care for nature and its inhabitants. Many students in the program have a similar eco-awareness, she added.

“[Students are] in the class because they want to be there. The enrolment is increasing and [the] class is always growing,” Zelenika-Zovko said about the environmental-policy class that she is a TA in. “I think students are interested in the environment because we live in the environment. I guess you could say we’re environmental creatures.”

Undergraduate Assistant for environmental studies Karen MacIntyre said the undergraduate program currently has 231 students with 10 permanent instructors in the department. This number seems to be rising as demand for graduates in this field increases.

“My [MES] graduate students tend to go right into jobs, many are hired before they even finish,” MacIntyre said.

Graduate students go on to various careers, MacIntyre said. This includes jobs in government offices (dealing with federal and provincial policies), energy consulting firms, oil fields and even jobs at Queen’s. As for the undergraduate students, she said their paths vary from year-to-year.

“If I had to just pick a percentage I would say I hear maybe half of them are going onto grad school somewhere,” she said. “But diverse grad schools, I see med school, law school. It’s very diverse.”

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