July 17, 2017
by Christopher Boone
Note: This essay originally appeared in several newspapers in the Valley and across the country.
Deans of colleges and schools have an annual ritual. Each fall, they greet their incoming class of freshmen – excited, hopeful and mostly young minds ready to enter adulthood, citizenship and self-sufficiency.
These students have worked hard to get into the school of their choice, and now their journey begins. This meeting is a blend of informational, inspirational and joyous.
Often sitting beside these excited young students are their equally excited parents, who have sacrificed to enable their children to reach this auspicious moment. They dream their children will become the proverbial “doctors and lawyers and such,” and also artists, engineers, historians, teachers, journalists and other well-known vocations.
But when the dean of a sustainability school addresses an incoming class, something curious happens. Every time.
Incoming students who have chosen sustainability as their career path have expressions that unmistakably say, “I want to save the planet.”
At the same time, their parents seem somewhat mystified, wondering, “Will my child be able to get a job with this degree?”
When Arizona State University opened its School of Sustainability in 2006, it was widely considered to be the first school of its kind in the U.S. To be honest, nobody knew how many students would enroll, let alone where they would work after graduation.
One faculty member quipped, “It’s not as though our students can look in the want ads under ‘S’ and find a career path.”
By comparison, today there are hundreds of sustainability programs offered by universities, and employers of all sorts are keenly interested in their graduates.
A 2016 survey of ASU’s undergraduate sustainability alumni showed that 96 percent were employed or attending graduate school. What’s more, 67 percent of employed students were working in sustainability-related jobs – more than twice the national average for major-to-career match.
Those are good odds.
But how can this be? After a decade of working with sustainability alumni and their employers, we know that sustainability is more than just a major. It is also a value – a set of principles by which to live one’s life, treat humankind and the Earth – all in a way that helps create a prosperous future for everyone.
Employers of all kinds are attracted to workers who hold these values and have attained the skills that sustainability students are required to master – systems-level, future-focused thinking and the ability to engage and collaborate with stakeholders to develop and implement solutions, among other skills.
In 2006, we couldn’t predict who would employ our graduates, other than perhaps the obvious environmental and conservation-oriented organizations. But since then, our graduates have consistently gotten good jobs at top-notch companies, important government agencies and major international nonprofits. Some examples: Amazon, PepsiCo, Walmart, NRG, Tesla, cities throughout the U.S., GE, Rolls Royce, Waste Management, World Wildlife Fund, USAA Insurance, Owens-Corning, Sandia National Labs, Dell.
So, when this dean greets incoming sustainability students, he understands the earnest concerns parents have about their child’s employment prospects. But he is also confident that these fears will, on graduation day several years from then, have been allayed.
Christopher Boone is Dean of the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. His research contributes to ongoing debates in sustainable urbanization, environmental justice, vulnerability and global environmental change. Boone serves on the Executive Committee of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors. He is the author of two books on urban sustainability, "City and Environment" and "Urbanization and Sustainability," and is the associate editor for the journals "Frontiers in Ecology (Urban Ecology)" and "Current Research on Cities."