Sophia Polasky

  1. Why did you choose to major in Environmental Studies?
    A good education is one that emphasizes asking and exploring good questions. As a freshman in college, I liked the kinds of questions that the Environmental Studies department was asking, and I was compelled to see where those questions led. Ultimately I chose to major in Environmental Studies because I thought the program had good leadership. I was impressed by the faculty members who were part of the department, and excited by the prospect of building a degree around their expertise. The Environmental Studies department felt fresh, dynamic, and relevant. Most importantly, faculty in the department seemed cognizant of the world beyond CSB/SJU, and they devoted time, energy, and thoughtfulness in helping me learn about that world, navigate it, and eventually venture out into it.
  2. What was the most important aspect of the Environmental Studies coursework/curriculum?
    The ES department did a good job keeping things focused on the student. They help students use the curriculum to create a comprehensive program of study, relevant to the student's interests and future pursuits. I loved the field-based exploratory nature of many of the courses I took. I also appreciated that this field-based learning was balanced with more academically rigorous coursework. Students are exposed to different social sciences, biophysical sciences, and humanities. More importantly, the ES program teaches students that there are many ways of thinking and generating knowledge. My degree taught me a lot of scientific humility, which has served me well in graduate school.
  3. Were you involved in any activities, such as clubs , organizations, Alternative Break Experiences, and/or study abroad programs while enrolled at CSB/SJU?
    The most transformative aspect of my undergraduate experience was easily the semester I spent in Northern Brazil with the School of International Training (SIT). It wasn't a program operated by CSB/SJU, but the ES department was incredibly supportive, urging me to go, and welcoming the perspective that I brought back. I chose to minor in Classical Greek. Many may not see a connection between Classical Greek and Environmental Studies, but to me, the classics are essential to any liberal arts degree. Classical Greek was my true passion project at CSB/SJU. The ES department was nothing but encouraging of this pursuit, seeing in it the same benefits I saw.
  4. What did you do immediately after graduation? 
    Following graduation, I enrolled in the US Peace Corps. I was sent to Ghana, West Africa. I lived in a fairly rural community close to the border of Cote d'Ivoire. My experiences in Peace Corps were both rewarding and frustrating. I wanted to better understand the nature of the problems I was encountering before I continued to work towards their solutions.

    Following 2 ½ years in Ghana, I returned to Portland, Oregon, where I began working for the World Forest Institute as an administrative assistant. At any given time there are dozens of pretty impressive researchers working on problems from all over the world. I didn't have the greatest of positions, but I was positioned well to meet interesting people. Those connections have served me well. I met folks who helped me transition into a research position with the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station. Most of the research I did, and continue to do, has a communities and natural resources theme.
  5. If it differs, what are you currently doing?
    Currently I am pursuing a PhD with the College of Forestry at Oregon State University. I'm in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society, a department with a variety of different disciplines, including social sciences (my orientation). In particular I study the effectiveness of natural resource based development interventions at promoting resilience in socio-ecological systems. My dissertation focuses on one particular development project - STEWARD (Sustainable and Thriving Environments for West African Regional Development) which is located in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cote d'Ivoire. I'm not sure where I will go, or want to go, next...but I'll just have to see where things take me.
  6. Do you have any advice for current CSB/SJU students?
    Obsessively follow, and hold on to, effective mentoring. Favor opportunities that come with great mentoring. I stumbled into a humble and low paid research position that came with a great mentor - my boss. My boss recognized my skills and interests, and never failed to advocate for me, giving me opportunities that would help me in the future, and pushing me to take on more responsibility. Derek Larson and my classics professors continue to be important mentors in my life. We've stayed in touch, we email back and forth, and when I need advice, or moral support, I can email any of them. They've written me meaningful, personal letters of recommendation that have helped set me apart from other applicants to various positions and schools.

Good mentors can provide opportunities for you, help open doors, and teach you skills that make you more marketable or improve your resume. Good mentors give more than advice. The best mentors are people who teach me enough so that I can give myself good advice. Finding them is not always easy. But the potential for good mentoring should always be on your mind. In grad school the degree you get is maybe a quarter of the value of your program. The people you meet along the way - including other students - that's where most of the value is.