Campus Conversations with Ashleigh Bell: The Road to Grad School Less Traveled

Your freshman orientation is probably your first introduction to your future educational timeline—most of it is just awkward, as you’re surrounded by a group of similarly feeble 18 year-olds who are uncomfortably fidgeting with the thought of unsupervised independence, but you may get lucky and make a long-lasting new friend. I was one of the lucky ones when I ended up meeting Ashleigh Bell in my orientation group, who’s since become one of my best friends and current roommate, despite the awkward mess we were when first meeting (as she’s currently laughing at me over my shoulder while I try to describe it creatively). 

Ashleigh and I are close to wrapping up our second year at UW together, but while I focus most of my attention on prerequisites and general education requirements, and although we’re the same age, she’s eleven days from graduating with her BA in environmental studies in the Program on the Environment, despite powering through most of it during a global pandemic. She’s just finished up her Symposium presentation, a nine month-long culmination project of her research on overcoming the barriers of incorporating a diverse range of participants into environmental volunteer projects. Then, she’s off to the University of Colorado Boulder in August to gain her Masters of the Environment with a concentration in sustainable food systems by 2023. If anyone deserves the title of “environmental superstar,” it’s her.

As her undergraduate studies come to a close at UW and she continues a life of passion for the world around her in another state, she volunteered to share some information with me about what she’s learned within a relatively new degree here, and also what she hopes to achieve and conquer in grad school for the betterment of connections between individuals and the natural world. 

1. What attracted you to the field of environmental studies?

I liked that the field focused less on STEM, and instead focused on what I was always more interested in. I’ve always been very intrigued by how humans interact with the environment, and that’s essentially what the program is about. 

2. What inspires you in environmental studies?

I’m inspired by new technologies and discoveries in sustainable agriculture—for example, I’ve learned recently about the possibility of feeding cows sea grass to lower their carbon emissions. It makes me feel that I can make a change in sustainable agriculture, which is all too important in our growing world.  

3. Is there a particular moment or memory that stands out to you from your time in the environmental studies degree?

My capstone as a whole definitely stands out to me. That was my senior project, a three-part series of finding an internship, completing it, and then presenting on my research findings in the spring. It helped me dig deeper into one specific field since the environmental studies degree is so broad. With my research, I was able to discover what I really wanted to do and where my passion in environmental studies issues really is.

Girl hiking Photo by Holly Mandarich from Unsplash

4. What was the most impactful thing that was taught in your degree particularly?

In my sustainability class, Environment 239, I learned a lot about my personal consumption in today’s world and how to live my day-to-day life more consciously with the environment. And although I had to confront some harsh truths, it was definitely a good thing.

5. What is the most important thing you’ve learned about your time as an undergraduate in environmental studies at UW?

The most important lesson I’ve learned is that, even when you see the people who look very “put together” and on top of their schoolwork, I can guarantee they’re probably just as lost as you are, and really, nobody knows what they’re doing in college.

6. What are you most excited for in grad school, and what are you most nervous for?

I’m excited to meet a ton of new people and live in a state I’ve never been to before, and also to live on my own for the first time. However, I’m nervous for how academically challenging it may be.

7. How did you know that grad school is right for you in your field of interest?

Job searching during the pandemic was difficult, and in the environmental studies job field, if you don’t have at least five years of work experience, you start at a low-paying seasonal job and opportunities for growth may be limited. So, grad school is eventually going to open many more doors for me in my career. Getting my master’s degree will help me evolve my education in something I’m really passionate about. 

8. What do you think people should know about preparing for grad school?

You definitely need to go to as many program informational meetings as possible before starting the application process—avoid wasting time on applications for schools that don’t meet your requirements and needs long before you ever start applying there. Also, make sure your personal essays and resume are reviewed by as many people as possible, because the admissions panels can be pretty picky. 

9. What would you say to someone considering grad school?

It all depends on the field you’re interested in (things are different depending on where you go), but I would say that if you don’t know what job you want after, it’s probably best to save your time and money until you really figure it out. 

10. Is there anything else you would like to share? 

Keep in touch with people from your freshman orientation. 

To learn more about her past two years of work on the environment here at UW, follow Ashleigh on Twitter @ashleighcbell