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Blazing trails for transit

MES in the Community, Anya Saretzky

As an undergraduate, Anya Saretzky (Master of Environmental Studies, ’14), was interested in finding ways to affect change in areas like urban decay, poverty and equity. She discovered a bridge in the environmental field that set her on the path to where she is today. In her own words, “Without a stable climate, people can’t thrive.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree, Anya completed internships abroad and with AmeriCorps that addressed energy efficiency, education and urban horticulture. She knew she was ready for the next step in her career, and the Lawrenceville, NJ native soon found her way to Penn’s Master of Environmental Studies program. “The environmental field is very broad, and there are a lot of different issues and skill sets that you need for working in the various aspects of the field—and I felt I really needed a master’s degree.”

With Penn’s Master of Environmental Studies program, Anya was able to combine her passion for social change with her desire to work within the green industry. “I immediately signed up for the education and advocacy courses. I was able to earn a nonprofit certificate through the Fels Institute of Government, which made me very marketable. The master’s degree shows I have the knowledge base, and the certificate shows I have the right skill set to work within a nonprofit.”

During her course of study at Penn, Anya was introduced to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in Professor Amy Hillier’s Social Mapping class. This technique became a major component of Anya’s capstone project which mapped green spaces (or lack thereof) in Philadelphia neighborhoods and their relationship to rates of obesity, poverty and violence. “Coming to a city like Philadelphia is an incredible opportunity to examine how dense populations interact with and impact the environment," she reflects. "Cities are at the forefront of green initiatives, and Philadelphia is definitely a leader.”

Today, Anya is a Project Manager in Philadelphia for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a national nonprofit that transforms unused rail corridors into outdoor public spaces—which foster a more resilient environment, promote healthier lifestyles and offer accessible, alternative transportation. She manages projects for the Circuit Trails, a network that is currently 320 miles long, and when completed, will stretch across nine counties and more than 800 miles through the Greater Philadelphia region.

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Along with addressing the equity issue of people having access to transportation, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy organizes youth outreach programs and outdoor wellness workshops with health care providers. Anya’s work also has the potential to reach well beyond its local impact: “Rails-to-Trails Conservancy sees the Circuit Trails as a project of national significance that other cities can learn from and replicate in their own communities. This is one of the biggest trail networks in the country.”

Through rigorous academics and meaningful fieldwork, Penn’s Master of Environmental Studies program was able to help Anya achieve her professional goals. “Being a grad student at Penn brought me to where I am today,” she says. Her position with Rails-to-Trails has made it possible for Anya to address environmental issues through public activism. In her view, “these trails build and connect communities, and make neighborhoods more livable.”