Our Students Share Grad School Tips with Environmental Leadership Community
October 15, 2019
By Lindsay Key
Flexible scheduling, the opportunity to participate in study abroad and independent study components, and the freedom to study topics related to their passions and specific research interests; that is why three women working as leaders in the field of global sustainability chose to pursue a graduate degree at the Virginia Tech Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability.
In July, these current and former students in the Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program—Valerie Winrow, Sara El Choufi, and Danielle Simms—shared reflections and tips for choosing a graduate school with an online community of women interested in careers in global sustainability. The webinar, called "Women in Global Sustainability Leadership,” was facilitated by the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program Alumni Network, which is a program of the Environmental Leadership Program. More than twenty people from around the world tuned in.
El Choufi, who recently earned her XMNR degree, is an evaluation analyst with the Global Environment Facility within the World Bank Group. She needed a master’s program that truly was a one-year commitment and that would allow her to keep her full-time, 9-to-5 job.
Winrow echoed her sentiment, adding: if you’re a person who wants or needs to learn online, but also craves face-to-face interaction, the XMNR is a perfect blend. It incorporates in-person student meetings in the Washington, D.C. metro area, once a month on a weekend.
“I am returning to school late in my life and, as you get older, going back to school becomes a big challenge for a lot of different reasons,” said Winrow, of Atlanta, GA, who works as a business analyst for sustainable solutions at Cox Communications and expects to complete the XMNR in December 2019. “I was happy to find a program that allows for once-a-month, in-person study, while also being part of smaller groups where you can get to know your classmates one-on-one. The whole thing just really came together for me because of the fact that distance learning doesn’t feel so distant.”
An especially appealing part of the program for all three was the opportunity to study abroad for ten days as part of the core Global Study experience. Winrow plans to study in Egypt in November, and El Choufi and Simms both studied in India. El Choufi and Simms found the differences in infrastructure in India—in terms of water systems, transportation, and agriculture—fascinating.
“I’d never gotten a chance in college to study global policy,” said Simms, who currently works as the Government Relations Manager for the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. “This was a chance for me to go abroad and study global sustainability.”
Simms also commented that an independent study she completed as part of the program, studying environmental justice policy and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, provided valuable real-world experience.
At one point during the webinar, the speakers were asked what sorts of careers they felt the degree and its related experiences had opened up. “What I think was very helpful with this program is the amount of traction I started getting post-graduation,” said El Choufi. “I started realizing my CV is being more noticed by employers within my institution than before, which for me was great.”
“The leadership skills that you learn, they get embedded in you and you’ll be able to apply them,” she added. “The topical areas are depending on the field that you work in. You might draw different knowledge from different topics that you cover in the class, but for the most part, it’s the skills around the knowledge that really is what the program will give you.”
Simms added that the networking she did during the program—with other students, faculty members, and professionals she met through her independent study—has been most valuable. “There are just a lot of really dedicated people to know, interact with, and learn from that can expand your network,” she said.
"The Environmental Leadership Program focuses on creating community among folks in the environmental sector through resource sharing and leadership development retreats,” said Lucy Alejos, the Digital Community Engagement Manager. “Partnering with Virginia Tech's Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability on this webinar was an opportunity to share a non-traditional graduate program aligned with the interests of many of ELP's Senior Fellows. Through the stories Danielle, Sara, and Valerie shared, I hope participants were able to begin exploring the personal questions they need to ask themselves as they begin to look at graduate programs."