Are you a recent graduate passionate about saving the planet, a professional seeking a shift into sustainability, or an outdoorsy 9-5er feeling trapped in the office? You’re not alone. For The Future of Work in Sustainability symposium this upcoming Saturday, May 4, we’ve invited alumni back to campus for an event highlighting sustainability-focused career options in food, energy, and the outdoors.
Opportunities in these fields are growing, but the path into a fulfilling role isn’t always clear. That’s why we’ll be asking our alumni panelists from a range of industries—from agriculture to journalism, research to policy creation, and energy to law—to talk current trends and career-building advice.
Can’t make the symposium? We asked some of the panelists to share lessons they’ve learned. Peruse their advice below, then keep an eye on our list of upcoming events for similar Future of Work symposia.
Upon graduating, Kevin Peterson ’82 watched his classmates take jobs in finance and business—and looked in the other direction. “I wanted to be outdoors,” he says. So he took seasonal jobs, alternating between ski resort and trail maintenance gigs. The latter led to a full time job and 15-year stretch as a natural resource manager with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. After the ATC, Peterson spent 17 years with New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, overseeing $2 million annually in environmental grants. He is now the director of economic development at the NH Community Development Finance Authority.
“Get a volunteer job and make yourself indispensable, so that someone would have to consider what they would do without you and figure out a way to keep you on. There are tons of outdoor and environmental organizations that have volunteer opportunities, and so getting plenty of experience as a volunteer while you’re a student or after—even if you take a more conventional position—to start as a volunteer and then work your way into something that has compensation.”
2. Keep trying things.
Lelia Mellen ’86 agrees that experimenting with seasonal jobs and volunteer opportunities is beneficial. A long-time outdoor enthusiast and a “big Dartmouth Outing Club person,” Mellen also got involved with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy after graduation. For 25 years, she’s worked on conservation initiatives with national groups, local and state agencies, and nonprofits. She’s now the National Park Service’s NH projects director for the Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program.
“If you have the option, try an internship. With internships or seasonal jobs, the commitment level is not huge. So if you don’t like it, after three, six, or nine months, you haven’t lost much. And if it’s based in the environmental profession, that counts on your resume. It adds to your experience level and looks favorable from an employer standpoint. Keep trying things.”
3. Have Genuine Conversations.
Sara Cavin ’04 describes her path from grant-funded science to the nonprofit world as “jagged,” but always influenced by her early interests in the environment and natural world. After a series of seasonal internships, she spent 11 years with the Upper Valley Land Trust before assuming her current role as program coordinator at Willing Hands, an Upper Valley organization that recovers food to reduce waste and help neighbors in need.
“Have conversations, not just with friends but also with acquaintances who are interesting, your parents' friends, your neighbors' friends, the people you bump into when you're both at a place you frequent because of shared values. Talk to them about what they do, what they like about what they do, what inspires them, and how they got there. I kind of stumbled into a job with a great fit simply because I believed in the organization and knew one of its leaders well enough to have those important conversations and figure out how I might actually be able to get involved.
It's a never-ending search, though if I were to talk to myself 15 years ago I think I would try to encourage that new graduate to keep the conversations genuine, and make sure to take the time for them, and then follow up. Sustainability-based careers will hopefully only continue to grow—they have to if society is going to survive!”
4. Get outside, no matter what.
Deciding on a career path was not too complicated for Nina Cook Silitch ’94, who always wanted to be a teacher. But the Nordic skier and ski mountaineer also knew she’d need to incorporate her love of the outdoors into her time in the classroom via her curriculum—and to make time to do the things she loves. She’s proof that even jobs outside of the “outdoors” or “sustainability” field can be satisfying to those who find the right balance.
“If you’re that kind of person who needs to be outside or in nature, and your job doesn’t necessarily allow you to do that, just being aware and making time on your lunch break or before work or after, even if it’s just 20 minutes—will help you do better in your day-to-day job. Find friends that like to do things outdoors and take advantage of doing things on the weekends.”
5. take the plunge.
Chuck Wooster ’89 worked in sustainable energy and journalism for years. And although he always believed in the mission of his work, “I came to realize I am someone who fundamentally needs and loves to be outside as much as possible,” he says. “Once I allowed myself to realize that, I looked around and found farming.” Wooster founded Sunrise Farm in the Upper Valley in 1999; since 2012 he’s been farming full time, producing fruits and vegetables for its 300-member CSA as well as chicken, lamb, maple syrup, honey, and firewood.
“Farming is a great fit for me. It’s deeply varied (no two days are ever the same) and it’s also where the work of conservation actually happens. Think tanks and seminars and smart people all have ideas about how land should be conserved, but it’s the people with the tractors and hand tools and chain saws who are implementing the vision.
If you’re someone who needs and loves to be outside, you’ve got to go for it. There’s no substitute for being out in the sun and rain and mud and snow and flowers and trees and animals. Your head will figure out how to make it work. Your soul will be eternally grateful.”