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Life as an Environmental Science Major

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Portland chapter.

I’m a freshman environmental science major. It’s something I’ve cared a lot about for a long time, and something I think more people should care about. It’s a complex area of study with lots of different facets that I’m looking forward to exploring more in the future. I haven’t quite found my niche yet, but what I’ve learned is that this is as much an emotional and mental journey for me as much as it is an educational one.

It started off with simple enthusiasm…

First, a bit of background, or my origin story, as I’d like to dramatically put it. My desire to study environmental science probably originated in fourth grade when I learned I was AWESOME at making food webs. Nine-year old me could see ALL the connections between plankton and fish and ducks and hawks. My interest was renewed in ninth grade biology when we were studying life science more in depth, and more specifically, ecology. To this day, I love learning about the connections in nature, between humans and the world around us, how the living and nonliving aspects of the world interact and affect each other. It really makes me appreciate Earth so much more. This tiny planet in a giant, expanding universe is home to millions of different things in hundreds of ecosystems. But environmental science isn’t just about the cute animals and tropical rainforests.

… but then I found that studying environmental science could be extremely disheartening.

Everyone knows the Earth is facing a lot of crises, but it doesn’t really click until the evidence is shoved in your face, loud and angry and incessant. People are starving. Rare species are going extinct. Natural habitats are being destroyed. The strongest hurricanes and droughts in history are wreaking havoc across the planet. We’re running out of resources and space to live. We’re killing our only home in ways we can’t imagine and all of these problems are often hidden just out of sight, and just out of mind. It really makes you think about humanity and wonder where did we go wrong? It becomes abundantly clear that we’re all in WAY over our heads. One of the most common lines I’ve heard is that even if we stop whatever bad thing we’re doing, whether it’s carbon emissions or overfishing, the damage we’ve already done will take hundreds of years to undo. We’re racing against a ticking clock to come up with solutions to problems that didn’t exist fifty years ago. And it’s just kind of … depressing.

Life as an environmental science major is emotional…

I will be the first to admit that sometimes it can get overwhelming, FOR SURE. If you think about these things and get sad and feel moved, that’s a good thing. If you get angry and outraged, that’s equally as valid. After discussing a situation like the destruction of coastal environments or the depletion of seafood sources, I can go on impassioned tangents for hours. From ads to documentaries, effective media formats can sucker punch you in the feels while simultaneously informing you about the water crisis or the effects of the latest natural disaster and how people everywhere are suffering and in need of help.

But we can use these feelings – let them drive you to make a difference because once we are confronted with all of these issues, the question changes from “What are the problems?” to “How can we fix the problems?” As of now, it’s clear we don’t have a lot of solutions. There are a lot of ideas, some good, some bad. Some are possible, others not so much. Some might work for a few years, but we need ones that will work effectively for the long term. It’s a tough challenge to meet. But I believe we can do it.

… but is also full of involvement…

People and communities are actively working towards solutions, for all the problems. As implied above, this is a work in progress. Some problems are prioritized above others, but any progress is better than none. One of the things I’ve come to realize in recent years is that to make things happen on a large scale, we need cooperation from everyone. Environmental scientists alone cannot solve the world’s problems. We need to collaborate with policymakers, with local government officials, with businesses and educators, with engineers and innovators to have the biggest and most powerful impact. So even if you’re not a “science” person, there are still ways to get involved from whatever major you’re in.

And it is also extremely empowering!

When you’ve become enlightened to the terrible things going on around us that are hidden from view, you start to notice them. I’ve become a lot harder on myself when I make daily choices. Should I choose the pasta and plain tomato sauce instead of that steak dinner? How soon do I “need” that online purchase delivered – can I wait for regular delivery? Should I take the bus or request an Uber? All of these questions can be exhausting, but they’re also empowering in the way that they remind me that as a consumer and citizen, my decisions and actions can speak loudly, and so can yours!

If you want to live a more environmentally friendly life, doing the things you’ve heard since elementary school do make a difference – reduce, reuse, recycle; turn off the lights, use public transportation, take shorter showers, all that jazz. And there’s nothing wrong with taking small steps to integrate these things into your daily life. You’re making an effort and that is what matters the most.

But expand your thinking and be creative to see where else you can make changes in your life. Look at your wardrobe. Look at the products you use. Look at your diet. Ask yourself some questions: where are you shopping? Do you know where your produce comes from? Does your go-to clothing brand of choice promote sustainable practices? Do you pass on the plastic straw every time you get a fountain drink? Are you taking time to separate your compost and recycling from trash? Do you know where your trash goes after you’ve thrown it away? If you can answer yes to any of those questions I applaud you. If not, don’t worry about it – see it as an opportunity to reflect on ways you can simultaneously better your life and benefit the planet.

In the case that I’ve made “ being environmentally friendly” seem like too much work, I apologize – that is definitely not my intention. This is also coming from my personal experiences and perspective and is not necessarily representative of every other environmental science major out there. I just wish to inform you, to the best of my ability and from my perspective as a young, female college student, on a topic close to my heart because I want to see change. I want to make plastic straws obsolete. I want to make sure we have enough food to feed the world. I want to make sure that coral reefs and tropical rainforests and the organisms that depend on them are safe. I want to see a million other things happen, and I hope I get to play a part in making it happen.

And we all have a part to play. Keep learning and expand your horizons! Take an environmental science class if you can. Whatever your passion is, we need the best scientists, engineers, teachers, politicians, and media experts to work together to find long-term, viable solutions and share them with the public. It’s our world and we have to take care of it. There’s power in numbers – let’s use our voices and make a change!

[All GIFs from GIPHY]

Jennifer is studying Environmental Science and English at the University of Portland. She loves to read, write, take photos, and watch animated movies in her free time.