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Living at the intersection of communication and science to advocate for sustainability

Marketing manager Olivia Wang (MES `16) was headed toward a career in journalism when she decided to pursue an environmental studies education and become a sustainability advocate.

Olivia (Xin) Wang (Master of Environmental Studies `16) had planned to be a reporter. While completing a master's degree in journalism and communication with a focus on environmental issues, however, she realized she wanted to advocate for the environment in a more proactive way than reporting. "I was really interested in environmental issues and sustainability, but my knowledge extended to the stories I covered. I needed a systemic education in environmental studies to see the big picture," she shares. She found that deeper academic grounding with Penn's Master of Environmental Studies (MES).

While providing Olivia with the environmental science foundation she wanted, the flexible MES curriculum allowed her to incorporate her communication interests into her studies. "I knew that I wasn't going to become a scientist," she says about entering the program. "I do not come from a hard science background, unlike some students in the MES, but I had the chance to dip my toe in the field of sustainability and still pick a path for environmental communication and advocacy. That's one thing I love about the program; it allows you to take the professional track that fits your background."

Though students came from different fields, the close-knit community and accessibility of the faculty provided a sense of belonging. "There was always someone you could get a response from or have a one-on-one discussion with. There's a pronounced focus on community and connection," she says.

Many MES courses include fieldwork and trips that provide practical insight and professional connections. One conservation course led Oliva to a summer internship with the Willistown Conservation Trust, a nonprofit outside of Philadelphia. "They do a lot of awesome things with land preservation like bird banding and community-supported agriculture. And they have educational opportunities for the local community," she explains. Oliva was able to leverage her journalism skills at the Trust working as a visual storyteller, shooting videos and interviewing staff members to promote the organization. (You can see one of these videos on YouTube.) "I was basically recording the work people do on a day-to-day basis and at a local community level that could contribute to conservation and sustainable development as a whole," she says.

Olivia was able to sink her teeth further into storytelling with her capstone project "Conservation on the fly" (available on YouTube), which features the use of drones in conservation data collection efforts. "I had the flexibility to produce a video alongside the text. I got to travel and interview scientists and researchers in the field from around the nation. It turned out to be a really great experience for me."

Thanks to a connection made by a faculty member who had worked at the EPA, Olivia also directed a documentary for the EPA Alumni Association. (You can find Anthrax Cleanup on Capitol Hill on YouTube.)

Olivia's coursework also exposed her to global issues and real-world environmental policy, from an ecological trip to Puerto Rico to the World Water Forum in South Korea. "My learning extended beyond the classroom to what was happening in the world. We got to see that people are out there building solutions to solve real issues." And after graduation, she continued to learn about international concerns as a communications and event intern with the United Nations.

Olivia describes the MES as transformative. "My experience at Penn influenced me profoundly—professionally and personally. I experienced a lot of life-changing moments through my internships and coursework, especially through Willistown Conservation Trust. It changed my lifestyle and made me more consumer conscious. I enjoy gardening at home using compost from food scraps and brown materials. I minimize waste by practicing the three R’s—reduce, reuse and recycle. At a professional level, having that fundamental training in environmental studies was something that had been missing in my portfolio before I entered the MES community."

Today, Olivia uses her communication skills and environmental education as a marketing manager at IEEE Standards Association—an organization that develops global technology standards for humanity and sustainability. Part of her role is to help promote engagement between stakeholders to find sustainable, technology-based solutions for some of society's biggest challenges. For example, she is currently working with telecommunication subject matter experts (SMEs) who aim to bring affordable, equitable internet connectivity to underserved communities. Stakeholders can range from policymakers to researchers to industry representatives. And Olivia develops campaigns to cultivate community among them while promoting technology standards and solutions for common sustainable development goals (SDGs). "Throughout my career, I've tried to stay at the intersection of communication and sustainability, and that's where I am—communicating sustainability to a broader audience."