Individual Development for Sustainability

By: Emily Talley

Developing solutions to global sustainability challenges requires innovative leadership with public and private partners working together to solve complex problems. Virginia Tech’s Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program emphasizes the need for effective partnerships involving interdisciplinary, multi-institutional, and cross-cultural collaboration among business, civil society, and government.

One of the most exciting aspects of a professional graduate program like the XMNR is the opportunity for students to focus on refining their career goals and enhancing the skills that will enable them to advance as leaders, unite others in collaborative problem solving and amplify the impact of their individual and collective efforts. The program is cohort based, which enables students to build relationships with peers in a setting that fosters creative teamwork.

Each cohort, however, is comprised of individuals representing multiple sectors, with students offering anywhere from three to thirty-plus years of professional experience. Recognizing that students come to the classroom with diverse backgrounds, goals, and aspirations, we offer the Individual Development Process (IDP) to enable each student to reflect on their career goals and meet their learning objectives.

The IDP begins at the start of students’ year-long journey in the program. Initially, students spend time reflecting on and clarifying career goals connected to professional interests and priorities. They are encouraged to think beyond the program with a culminating focus on change with adaptive leadership. Moreover, to identify their communication and leadership strengths to find more opportunities for improvement. Also, they learn and apply networking and informational interview skills to expand their professional networks and bolster their understanding of other roles and sectors. As XMNR faculty, my colleague Elizabeth Hurley and I are delighted to lead this aspect of the program.

Throughout the second half of the year, students develop and advance an individual capstone project. The primary focus is on skills that enable and enhance professional development, allowing students to advance work that will best serve their unique professional objectives. Students use the following options to guide their project: advance a new field or professional project, deepen subject matter expertise, or clarify career goals. Examples of projects designed and completed by past students include:

To ensure that every student is supported throughout the IDP process, each is paired with an advisor. As a result, students receive one-on-one guidance navigating the focus, scope, and advancement of their projects. As XMNR faculty, we are delighted to lead this aspect of the program. As XMNR alumni, we are also well positioned to provide targeted feedback and guidance to current students.

Each year, several alumni are also invited to attend a cohort meeting to share how they chose an approach and framework for their IDP project and how their XMNR experiences contributed to their professional development. Recently, the following alumni generously shared their time and expertise with current students:

  • Molly Brown: Staff Attorney, Chesapeake Legal Alliance
  • Ellen Graap Loth: Principal, Cardno
  • Sally Parker: Energy and Sustainability Liaison, DC Public Schools
  • Rocco Saracina: Manager of Conservation Partnerships, Sustainable Forestry Initiative

At the end of the XMNR program, students are invited to reflect upon their IDP experiences. Thoughts from recent alumni illustrate the impact of the IDP process and project:

  • “The IDP has been a positive and rewarding experience. I’m committed to continuing my research effort and building out the valuable dataset resource that is a direct result of this effort.”
  • “I’m pleased with the work of my IDP and am committed and excited for it to continue to grow and develop further in my work at the 4-H Center. All of the work I did for my IDP will be used to finalize the working details of the strategic plan for the Center, as well as to continue relationships with stakeholders.”
  • “I’m very grateful to have had this opportunity to take the time to clarify my career vision, and I know it will be a great investment in my future.”
  • “My goal for this research was to clarify my career goals and vision. I have succeeded. Through my conversations with those in the field, I have not only gained insight but also set aside baggage I was unknowingly carrying with me.”
  • “This project allowed me to enhance my communication skills and expand my professional network.”
  • “The informational interviews were invaluable, and the project clarified my career interests. I feel that I am poised to pursue a future in sustainability leadership.”

Our current students are now in the process of developing their project proposals. This is an exciting time, and we look forward to all our students will accomplish as they advance their projects in the months ahead!


As a Senior Fellow with the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS), Emily Talley serves as an instructor for both the Online Master of Natural Resources and the Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) programs. Her primary areas of focus are communication and student career development. Before her role with CLiGS and the formation of her consultancy, Emily was the Senior Director of Community Affairs for Capital One Financial Corporation, where she connected lines of business and nonprofit partners to lead and advance financial education programs, national philanthropy, and employee engagement through volunteerism. Previously, she directed Gonzaga University’s development efforts in support of Native American outreach, leadership, and community service programs, and spent five years as a writer and community development director for America’s Promise – The Alliance for Youth, a national nonprofit founded by General Colin Powell, USA (Ret). Programs created and led by Emily and her teams have received recognition and awards from the Points of Light Institute, the Taproot Foundation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Board Source, Junior Achievement USA, and the Washington Business Journal. A Board Member for the Model Forest Policy Program and consultant to the Virginia Environmental Endowment, Ms. Talley received a B.A. in English from The College of William and Mary, a M.A. in Communication and Leadership Studies from Gonzaga University, and an MNR degree from Virginia Tech.