How to lead from where you are: recent XMNR grad reflects on his education journey
February 8, 2022
By Ammar Khan
Why I chose the XMNR program
I was considering a couple of different programs in various fields before choosing a Master of Natural Resources. I thought it might be great to be able to dive headfirst into my art and seriously considered getting an MFA in digital media, looking into programs that would allow me to curate my budding interest in climate and sustainability issues. Ultimately, I said yes to the Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) because of a little idealized vision I had of my future:
I was in a room with like-minded individuals, working on a robust solution to actively change the conversation around new and emerging technologies that can positively impact our understanding of how we can survive this next century equitably, justly, and with grace. There were large windows where the sun at a golden hour shined through and bathed cleverly-chosen plants that proliferated in an open, free, and thought-provoking environment. Sustainability Professionals? No, Sustainability Leaders—that’s what we liked to be called.
Looking back at my incredible year with the XMNR cohort, I see that my vision came true in its essence countless times until it became a routine experience for me. It was never easy, but I want to share some approaches that helped me actualize my goal.
Where I was
“Lead from where you are.” When I heard the XMNR mantra, I was thrown for a loop. How can I lead from where I am when I’m not where I want to be?
I came into the XMNR program wanting to pivot from my prior work experience in the field of digital media. I knew I wouldn’t leave the world of film productions and music studios behind, but I wanted something more.
One reason that I decided on the XMNR program was because of its strategic location in Arlington, Virginia, just inside the Beltway and adjacent to the nation's capital in the Washington, D.C. metro region. Being in Chicago, I wanted to expand my network to make decisions on the most crucial issues in America: environmental justice affairs; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and sustainability from a foreign policy perspective.
But at the same time, I felt that I should not abandon my budding network in California, where projects that I was trying to see into fruition were finally coalescing. It seemed daunting, but I deemed early in the program that I needed to network “tri-coastally,” as I called it: West Coast, Great Lakes, and East Coast. Specifically, between Los Angeles, Chicago, and Arlington in Northern Virginia.
First off, I had to make schoolwork a priority. I also worked three part-time jobs. Another goal was to start and finish a bevy of internships during my time in grad school. I thought that if I picked these internships in places that could help me attain my networking goals, I could deliver on that “tri-coastal” dream of mine. Luckily, my professors and mentors at Virginia Tech made learning about effective networking easy and gave me a plethora of opportunities to hone my skills at the craft in a useful and engaging way.
How I got to where I wanted to be
I decided to join a multi-university club called Sustain Point Consulting Group. They were a bunch of college students, mostly undergraduates, that took on pro-bono sustainability consultant roles for startups. The club was brilliant, and the members were ahead of their time. I got to work closely with an organic waste company called CompostBiotic that was entrenched in the circular economy, and cut my teeth as a project manager.
Even though I didn’t join the club looking for work, it led me to join a social media start-up called Rizzle. I did growth marketing research on engineering virality—not precisely what you’d call a sustainability internship—but the experience was tremendous. Most of the team was based in India, and being a part of that global business opened my eyes to what you can achieve on an international level, even from the comfort of your room. I also made it known to the start-up where my passions lie so that if ever an opportunity arose to flex my sustainability knowledge, I could take it.
My second internship came through Handshake (you can use your VT credentials to gain access) and was much more up my alley. I applied for a job at a company called Strategic Energy Innovations based out in San Rafael, California, and they ended up turning me down because they didn’t like that I was still in school. Luckily, my writing samples from classwork impressed them enough to offer me an (unpaid) internship opportunity! I created an Asset Mapping Toolkit that helped tether climate professionals in Charlotte, North Carolina, and San Rafael, California. My willingness to connect these two cities on opposite coasts stemmed from my original networking goal. Although the work was never easy to manage with all my other commitments, it became one of the most critical sustainability accomplishments on my resume.
When my XMNR experience paid off
I secured my final internship with the U.S. Department of State by applying for it on USAJOBS. Although my program wasn’t in foreign policy, the global sustainability angle of the XMNR ended up impressing the Foreign Service Officers that I interviewed with. Throughout my internship with the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, I was lucky to work on projects that I was completely prepared for, thanks to the rigorous curriculum provided by my professors at Virginia Tech. From sustainable smart cities projects with Singapore to preparing for COP26 with a panel of leading strategists, I got to live out my climate professional dreams and make good on my goal of advancing sustainable solutions through effective policy and good governance.
At every step, mentioning my passion for sustainability helped me land coveted internships, and the work I was doing in pursuit of my Master of Natural Resources degree became a central topic for me, as I mentioned it ad nauseam to colleagues and potential employers alike. It wasn’t disingenuous, as I grew to love the program and my newfound appreciation for the field of sustainability.
If my journey sounds daunting, implausible, or unrelatable, it doesn’t have to be. I had never worked an internship in my life before going to grad school, and I had very little corporate experience. My transformation into a sustainability professional, hell, just a professional, was strategic, and very much happened because of my cohort members always pushing me to be my best self. The professors and advisors at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability became more than just mentors, but people I could rely on when I needed any advice on how to be a better sustainability leader.
To future (and present) sustainability leaders
I would urge anyone who is serious about changing the world to consider joining the XMNR. It is a place that can give you the knowledge, wherewithal, and direction to chase whatever vision of your future you may have. The program provides professional development opportunities, panels with leading sustainability and climate professionals, and project and research opportunities that can help you carve out your space as a leader in this field. Wherever home may be for you, the hybrid model makes the program possible for just about anyone in America. In this ever-increasingly digital world, increasing your network globally is a priceless opportunity. The XMNR gave me that, so consider this a thank you to all those who made it possible.
Ammar Khan is a director, creative strategist, and sustainability professional based out of Chicago, Illinois. He received his Master of Natural Resources degree at Virginia Tech in 2021. Ammar runs a digital media company, Visionary Coalition, where he works with businesses and artists around the world, telling stories from the perspectives of family, nature, music, and culture. He is currently working on a documentary project with actor Terrence Howard, serving as director and creative lead. Ammar's newest adventure is starting a sustainability brand and consulting group called Tayat, which will focus on successfully marketing and actualizing emerging climate technologies and broadcasting sustainability stories.