Graduating student holds the planet in her hands. Photo © Creativa \ Fotolia.com

As a third-year Environment and Business student at the University of Waterloo, I am often asked what I plan to pursue as a career after graduation.

The traditional jobs for an Environmental Studies graduate include working for government environment departments or pursuing activism in the non-profit sector. Many Environment and Business students have also been encouraged to create change from within businesses as a third option. For example, my generic answer to questions about my after-graduation plans is something along the lines of “I hope to integrate sustainable policies into big corporations.”

My answer is adequate among most audiences as sustainability is projected to be a growing trend, but it does not explain what this actually looks like. How do I plan on pursuing this goal when these jobs don’t necessarily exist yet? More importantly, how is my education providing me with the competencies to be a sustainability professional?

Earlier on in my undergraduate career, I actively avoided these questions because I didn’t know the answer myself. No matter how much I recited the Brundtland definition of sustainability like a prayer, no magic solution arose showing me how to apply my knowledge of environmental issues to the real world.

After a few co-op terms and exposure to related experiences outside of academics, I began to realize the overarching scope of my Environment and Business background: An education in sustainability allows graduates to adopt a unique and valuable way of thinking.

As highlighted in the Network for Business Sustainability article Why Hire a Sustainability Graduate?, a sustainability graduate's competencies include the ability to think ethically, systematically, long-term, strategically and collaboratively.

Again, although these terms seem broad and carry an undertone of common sense, there is a distinct advantage to knowing how to incorporate such values into decision-making in the real world.

So, here’s how an education in sustainability applies to the real world:

Ethical thinking: This degree has provided me with a holistic way of thinking. Admittedly, I have always been more pro-environment than pro-business, but class discussions have taught me the importance of a balanced approach while taking a stance on sustainability issues. Speaking to both sides of controversial issues is highly applicable to many career opportunities.

Collaborative thinking: My education has taught me the importance of partnerships. I am pursuing an independent initiative that can help push for stronger climate action – encouraging voter engagement in the youth demographic – and have realized the importance of utilizing existing networks to disseminate awareness.

Systematic, long-term, and strategic thinking: Prior to this degree I was intent on saving the world through environmental activism, but my communication style was unfocused. The campaigns I ran in high school were limited in success; I often failed to fully connect with my peers. My education taught me to strategically adapt my communications to specific audiences. I have learned to link others’ personal interests with the important issues at hand. The ability to communicate in a strategic, systematic, and timely manner is transferrable to a wide variety of opportunities in the business field. Moreover, this way of thinking has sparked my passion for other areas such as human design-thinking and marketing, which I hope to explore further.

The NBS argues that graduates in the field do not have to wait around, hoping for something green to show up before the graduation finish line. Our sustainability education equips us to be capable of pursuing remarkable opportunities across any and all sectors and industries.

Mavis Chan is a fourth-year Environmental and Business undergraduate student at the University of Waterloo. She was a former business volunteer at A\J.

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