As you are searching for a school with environmental programs, you will come across a few that seem especially devoted to the environment.
Perhaps you see something in a "Mission Statement" or letter from the dean on the school's web site that grabs your attention. Or maybe it's just in the name, which screams out to you in a loud booming voice: "SCHOOL OF THE ENVIRONMENT!"
"That's cool," you think. "But what can it do for me?" Here, we take a closer look at just what it means to be an "environmental school" like the ones that you will find on this web site, and whether you really can expect a more "environmental" education there.
For Starters... There are many schools out there with an environmental focus. They can be colleges or schools within universities, such as a School of Natural Resources or a College of the Environment, or they can be independent colleges that have environmental curriculum built into all of their programs, from the arts to the social sciences. On this web site, we refer to both of these types of schools as "environmental schools."
As a student looking for an environmental education, there are some distinct advantages to choosing an environmental school. Based on interviews, experience and intuition, here's our perspective on what they are:
1. Support for your Environmental Education. You can be certain that the environmental programs at an environmental school are actively supported in terms of financing, resources and commitment. While budgets and programs are still subject to change, at least you can be assured that a focus on environmental values is still important to the decision-makers. Because of this investment, these schools are able to attract good professors, offer instructive (and fun!) field trips, and can sometimes offer more courses or degrees.
The money and other support given to environmental schools indicate that the school cares about its environmental image and programs. It wants to attract students who are interested in learning about their majors with an ecological focus, and who are dedicated to helping the environment and people. Bill Ganzlin, Director of Student Services for the University of Minnesota's College of Natural Resources, said that the support and resources devoted at the University of Minnesota indicate that "the University is definitely dedicated to CNR and other environmental programs across campus."
2. The Academics of It All. Environmental schools usually offer a wide range of courses and/or degrees which have a focus on environmental issues. This can give students more opportunities to see environmental issues from many different points of view; social, economic, scientific, political, etc. Indeed, Dr. Lisa Lail Bunders, of Northland College, believes that at environmental schools, environmental concepts are infused into everything you learn. "When you go to history class, you're going to be talking about environmental leaders in history. You're going to learn about World War II, but you also learn about the environmental impacts of that war."
Along this same line of thought, Kay Fiedler, Director of Admissions at Unity College, pointed out that classes are not isolated; students could find themselves in a Statistics class solving a real problem for their Wildlife Biology class. This perspective can be important, as Ms. Fiedler put it, because "things aren't segmented in real life."
Also, Interdisciplinary Programs are quickly becoming the norm in environmental education across the board, but environmental schools have been integrating the environment with other academic studies all along. This puts them in a position to have a more fully-developed, and holistic approach to their programs. There is also more of a chance for undergraduate research and developing deeper relationships with faculty at small schools, because the faculty-to-student ratio is usually small. Participating in undergraduate research is a great way to prepare for graduate school or a career.
3. Environmental Awareness Beyond the Classroom. It's not uncommon for environmentally-conscious students to be frustrated by administrations that may not understand or take your environmental concerns into consideration (for example, schools that do not take support alternative energy or recycling programs). At an environmental school, you will be reassured by an administration that tries to make ecologically-sound choices and takes the values that you share into serious consideration.
According to Blaise Maccarrone, an Admissions Counselor at College of the Atlantic, COA devotes money to buying recycled paper, wood harvested from sustainable forests, and environment-friendly food choices at the cafeteria. These items cost more than their non-environmental counterparts, but they help to create a more "ecologically-aware" campus. The little and big things environmental schools do add up to a high quality education for their students.
4. The Community: Great Minds Think Alike. Environmental schools are often small, whether they are part of a larger university or an independent entity. This smaller community interacts on a regular basis, exchanging ideas and learning to respect other points of view.
Since you are environmentally-aware, you are more likely to find like-minds at an environmental school or college, creating an atmosphere where you can comfortably debate environmental issues and dig much deeper for integrated solutions. For example, everyone in your class group may know (or at least understand) the various environmental issues surrounding vegetarianism, even if they are not vegetarians themselves. This makes it easier to have intelligent debates, to form clubs, and to work on group projects.
In Conclusion... None of this is to say that you will not find a high-quality education through an environmental program or department within a college or university. Chances are, the faculty is just as dedicated, the curriculum has been carefully crafted, and your opportunities will still be great - remember that you are the one who makes the biggest difference. If you are dedicated to getting a great education and doing great things for the environment, you can and you will, regardless of the obstacles set before you.
But the decision of where you will get your education is one of the most important that you will ever make in your lifetime. It is a huge investment of you time and money, so it is a decision that should not be made lightly.
And, an environmental school just may be the best place to find a supportive learning environment, a wide variety of environmental courses and degrees, and a higher percentage of people who share your values and care about the environment.
This article was written for EnvironmentalColleges.info by Carol Ruhl, with contributions from Ward Allebach.