A Penn student designs her degree around the industries that power change

MES in the Community, Hayley McCurdy

“Electricity catalyzes economic growth,” says Hayley McCurdy (Master of Environmental Studies ’20). “That’s what allows you to have lights on for your kids to study at night or to put a fridge in your store.” For Hayley, investing in sustainable energy means investing in the communities and entrepreneurs whose resources are at risk from climate change. Now in her second year of Penn’s Master of Environmental Studies (MES) program, Hayley has designed a curriculum tailored to her interests in energy, economic development, and environmental stewardship with an individualized concentration in energy management. Having recently concluded an internship for a venture capital fund focused on innovation for the future of energy and working in microfinance in an emerging market, Hayley hopes to marry her two passions and pursue a career in sustainability-focused impact investing. “Impact investing is a great way to catalyze change, especially in emerging markets where there is a lot of room for growth,” adds Hayley. “This is one way for me to support those innovators because, in the end, innovation is what's going to drive this change we need.”

Hayley first became interested in energy industries and impact investments during a year-long fellowship in the Dominican Republic, where she worked for a nonprofit organization that distributed small short-term loans to Dominicans, often to women entrepreneurs who live in remote villages and rely on expensive imported fossil fuels. Realizing that solar energy would be a more economically as well as environmentally sound option for their clients, Hayley helped to establish the nonprofit’s first microloan for solar panels and then decided to pursue graduate studies in energy. “I gained this respect for the intersection of economic development and sustainable energy, and then I realized I needed to learn more about it,” she recalls.

At Penn, Hayley enjoys the freedom to explore topics that interest her. “I love to work in environments where an entrepreneurial spirit is welcomed,” she laughs. “The MES program has been really flexible and supportive of students taking their experience into their own hands and figuring out how to optimize their time here.” To Hayley, making the most of her time includes getting involved with student groups across campus, such as the Wharton Energy Club, where she helped plan the annual Wharton Energy Conference, and a new interdisciplinary group called Climate Action at Penn. “I enjoy hearing from different students about how they are thinking about their goals in life and how they plan to tackle climate change,” she says. Hayley’s peer network has also helped her to locate the best courses to fill out a broad, interdisciplinary knowledge base. She has taken courses from schools across Penn that range in topic from energy chemistry to environmental regulation to energy economics and law. “Climate change respects no boundaries,” she says. “It’s going to penetrate every single domain, so it’s important to understand how it is going to impact every student when they enter their professional careers.”

“The number one benefit of going to a university like Penn is the connections,” advises Hayley. “Prioritize networking, and go to every conference you can and every event on campus you can. There's so much learning that happens outside of the classroom.”