Graduate certificate program offers a career path in sustainability

A one-year graduate certificate program is in its second year at the University of Oregon, with a student population that tripled in a year. The program features extensive coursework and hands-on projects. And it is turning sustainability into professional careers in public, private or non-profit organizations.

The majority of this year's 18 participants in the Oregon Leadership in Sustainability (OLIS) came from outside the state. With its visibility expanding through contacts across the country, recruitment for Fall 2013 is ongoing.

"Our goal is to enable our students to find their way in the competing world of ideas, nostrums, perceptions, arguments, visions and concepts that now abound about sustainability and cities," says Vicki Elmer, OLIS director. "OLIS equips our students with an understanding of the many issues that cities face in achieving sustainability, so they can choose their path wisely both in terms of next steps and for life and career goals."

OLIS is based in the Department of Planning, Public Policy and Management in the School of Architecture and Allied Arts and is led by seven core and five affiliated faculty members.

Students spend three quarters immersed in required courses on such topics as urban ecological design, sustainability theory, energy and climate change and sustainable transportation planning. There are two slots for electives, which could include a summer study-abroad program on eco-districts in Europe or China.

Students attend core courses as a group. They also complete individualized capstone, or final, papers on a sustainability topic of their choosing, and they travel to select sustainability-related conferences. But the heartbeat of the program comes through three practicums tied to specific challenges and brought to OLIS by outside groups, says Anya Dobrowolski, assistant director of OLIS.

A new real world opportunity just arrived for the spring practicum. The Sustainable Real Estate Development Challenge will have OLIS students on the ground floor for planning sustainable development concepts and ecological designs for a 12-block area of downtown Portland, from Morrison Bridge to Burnside Bridge. In addition to OLIS faculty, students also will have Portland-based mentors from such fields as law, real estate market analysis, architecture and landscape.

The work, which begins April 1, will focus on land owned by Portland's Downtown Development Group, which is supporting the effort. The Portland-based Oregon Chapter of the Commercial Real Estate Development Association also is providing support.

This past fall students worked on the UO's Climate Action Plan update. Other examples of collaborations include a carbon emissions inventory and analysis for the city of Springfield, alternative heat sources and management strategies for waste management for the UO, a feasibility study on a potential regular bus service running between the UO's campuses in Eugene and Portland, and the economic impacts of bicycling for the city of Eugene.

"OLIS is like a master's program," Dobrowolski says. "Students go through the program as a group and work on team projects. We also work with them to develop their career skills including resume preparation and job searches. They tend to create social bonds. Our first-year graduates left with a community of practice that will allow them to consult with each other as they move forward in their careers."

First-year OLIS member Shelley Deadmond says she owes a debt of gratitude to Elmer and Dobrowolski for their leadership in OLIS.

"The OLIS program has provided me a foundation upon which I feel better prepared to incorporate systems-oriented thinking into everything that I do," says Deadmond. "The depth of conversation I was both exposed to and engaged with has given me the confidence to speak to a wide range of audiences about the importance of sustainability as we move forward in this new century — whether it's city planners, architects, soccer moms or whoever else."

Deadmond now works two part-time jobs, both of which were open to her because of OLIS. "I'm working with the city of Eugene on an innovative project surrounding the intersection between sports, sustainability and community livability, and also with the UO's Office of Sustainability, which is highly collaborative and doing cutting-edge work in both emissions reduction and the less-glamorous-but-equally-important area of data measurement and tracking."

Sustainability — a concept that is traced by some accounts back to early civilization — in recent years has been tied to environmental issues. Recycling at the University of Oregon, for example, began in the 1970s, putting the campus on the map as a leading innovator in the movement. The university's and Oregon's statewide reputation for environmental awareness is known across the country, says Dobrowolski, who also is a UO instructor.

But sustainability is much more, she says. "It is about systems and smart decision-making. Sustainability is about making decisions today that support people who are currently alive and also consider the needs of people in the future. You can think of it as a framework that you can apply to make you a good ancestor for future generations."

Sustainability today, Dobrowolski adds, can be seen as a three-legged stool, where the legs represent three Ps and Es: People/Equity; Planet/Environment; and Profit/Economy. "They are integrally tied together. One depends on the other," she says.

Through OLIS, she says, students get a solid, broad understanding of sustainability, especially in how sustainability relates in systems, such as how transportation relates to water, how water relates to energy, and how energy relates to food.

"The program recognizes that the majority of us now live in cities and asks how can we make those cities sustainable in the long run?" says Manly Norris, a current OLIS participant who studied Spanish and international trade at Clemson University as an undergraduate. "I believe sustainability, as a broader concept, is an entirely new ethical way of looking at the world. The interdisciplinary nature of the OLIS program has enabled me to study it from a number of perspectives and departments around the UO campus."

The UO, Norris says, "has a strong reputation for sustainable design education, and the Pacific Northwest is the country's most progressive region for environmental consciousness."

The concept for OLIS emerged in 2009, when Steve Mital, UO sustainability director, realized that a missing ingredient in a statewide framework developed by the Oregon University System's Sustainability Initiatives Committee was a broad graduate-level training program.

Mital approached the OUS leadership with the idea, and, soon after, Elmer was awarded a grant to pursue an academic plan. In April 2011, OLIS was approved. It launched in September 2011.