UConn Office of Environmental Policy

Promoting sustainability at UConn


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A Calling for Sustainability: One Grad Student’s Story

My name is Rachael, and I am a non-traditional graduate student. I am actually a mid-career professional who has decided to change careers to create work in a field I care passionately about.

I did my undergraduate work in Pennsylvania in animal science and biotechnology. I subsequently used my degree to work as an environmental educator, veterinary technician, and farm market manager before settling into a 12 year career in biomedical research. I took two years off to pursue a dream as a Peace Corps volunteer in the rural highlands of Western Guatemala.

I have been a self-taught lifelong naturalist, and when I arrived at my destination almost 11,000 ft above sea level in Guatemala, I quickly realized how fragile and marginal the summit environment was. I also quickly realized how difficult and balanced a chore it is to support oneself in this locale. For one year, I worked as a field veterinarian, health extensionist, and development professional. I started a sheep genetics project that had promise to help lift about 45,000 people out of poverty while teaching them to better care for their fragile environment. I ended up working on this project for 9 years.

road to siete pinos

My post-Peace Corps US career moved me from tuberculosis and flu vaccine research to overseeing health of transgenic mice and rats, and then I became an animal welfare and research ethics specialist. This path led me to UConn’s door in March 2009, where I worked as the campus IACUC coordinator and vice-chair while I started my Master’s degree in Agricultural Resource Economics part-time. I quickly realized that the needs of the master’s degree program were intense, and were in conflict with the hours required to maintain my work position. In 2010, I made the scary and tough decision to leave my employment and venture on as a full-time student.

My end goal is to turn the projects I started in Guatemala into a non-profit foundation that helps research, advise on, teach, and promote the use of climate change adaptation strategies for poor people living in highland regions. My experiences provided me with unique perspectives on how climate change is already starting to impact families’ abilities to feed themselves, and I can clearly see the ties between poverty and environmental degradation. For my Master’s degree, I am studying the economic impact of climate change in this vulnerable region, in order to provide myself with baseline data that I can use when I solicit team members and funding to start my NGO.

extended dry season

I currently work half-time in the UConn Office of Environmental Policy, and take graduate classes full-time. My path has not been without its trials. I have, in the past 5 years, suffered three job losses, and have had to physically move 6 times. My personal and family relationships have been strained, as has my health. Going back to school after 15 years away has been challenging, as I accustom myself to a much more demanding mathematical workload than I had ever known before. Life plans had to put on hold. I am paying my way through school, and ​​finding that I am struggling with bills and rent, often wondering if this is all worth it.

Yet I believe in what I am doing. Someone once told me that a calling is “that which you find impossible to walk away from.” It has been said that when you get beyond the US public debate of climate change, and get out into the heart of what the world risks losing at the mercies of unchecked climate change, you may actually learn to love aspects of what may be lost. In my case, I have learned to love it all- the bird species in jeopardy, the people struggling to find their way out of poverty while preserving one of the most fascinating and beautiful cultures on the planet, the cloud forests and maize fields.

milpa

My talents and interests have led me to the corn fields of Central America. I am an honorary Maya for the work I have done, and I consider that the greatest reward I have ever received. I try to challenge my students, the ones who work for me every day, to also tap into their individual potential, and think beyond finding “jobs” when they graduate. I want them to care about the work they do, both in the OEP Office, and in the larger scope of the world around them. We are part of a team trying to learn how to motivate people to care about their world, and how to effect positive change. We are trying to develop a sustainable and grateful mindset toward the world around us, one small victory at a time.


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Making a Difference on Campus: How Spring Valley Farm Came to Be

I have heard from a lot from my fellow Huskies that they feel as though they are unable to cause change here at the University. They feel as though they are a small fish in the giant ocean that is UConn and so they cannot do much to make a difference on campus. I did, however, witness one of my fellow students do what others thought was impossible. In only four years, I watched a friend of mine turn a club into a small scale business that even led to the creation of UConn’s latest living and learning community.

During my freshman year, I began attending meetings of the UConn ecoGarden Club, which was a student run organization focused on growing food organically and sustainably. We were a young club (only three years old at the time) and only had one-third an acre of land, a shed, and a hoop house. Even though the main members of the club included numerous upperclassmen and graduate students who had been at the club’s founding, the president was a sophomore named Matt Oricchio.

In a year, Matt helped grow the club to include a second hoop house and numerous cold frames. In the summer concluding his first year as president, the club began selling produce at local farmers’ markets. In another year, it became a summer community supported agriculture (CSA) program that sold twenty shares to local community members. The CSA was successful enough to run the final summer of Matt’s stay at UConn. He also developed a working relationship with the Local Routes program and Dining Services, which allowed the club to sell produce to Chuck and Augie’s Restaurant as well as to the campus dining halls.

Dedicated to organic farming, Matt worked with a number of individuals from the Department of Dining ServicesOffice of Environmental PolicyDepartment of Residential Life, and numerous faculty members to create a living and learning community focused on organic farming. Thanks to the persistence of Matt and some other key individuals, Spring Valley Farm opened in the spring of 2010 and housed Matt as its first resident. He graduated and spent his summer taking care of the farm and training EcoHouse students to take over for him when he finally left in December. Spring Valley Farm now houses ten students and sells produce to Chuck and Augie’s and the dining halls. Matt currently is president of an organic farm in Westport, CT.

Matt’s time at UConn showed me that it is possible to change the university, even without ever working for it. Spring Valley Farm is but one example of a change on campus brought about by a student because of his perseverance.  The biggest inertia facing students wanting change is not that of the large institution, but rather an attitude that preventing them from acting in the first place.