Kelsey Wright chats with alum Stephanie Cappa
As the Deputy Director of Policy and Government Affairs at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Stephanie Cappa (B.A., Public Policy/Environmental Science & Policy, 2005) works with Congress, executive branch agencies, private sector actors, NGOs and activists to “fix our broken relationship with nature” by pushing for federal policy change. Her work focuses on food systems, water security, and forests, among other issues.
“I’m looking at how nature is intertwined with many, if not all, of the major challenges we face today. My job is to connect our science and experience with policymakers to build big picture change,” she shared.
Her zeal for her work is palpable, and she’s hopeful about what the Biden-Harris administration can do to help address environmental problems.
“We need to have economy-wide change globally to get us on the right track. That means confronting not only problems with nature, but problems of poverty, inequality and injustice as well. I’m looking for ambitious change that meets the urgency of this moment,” she said.
Cappa’s experiences in nature, growing up hiking in Northern Virginia and spending time each summer with her family in a remote cabin in West Virginia, inspired her to study environmental science and policy at William & Mary.
“It became who I was and what I cared about: conserving these natural spaces and access to them for the long-term. Even in elementary school, you recognize that all life depends on these systems. They need to be conserved and they’re under threat unlike never before.”
Her passion for the environment came to life while studying tropical biology abroad in Costa Rica, and she was quickly able to connect that experience with her public policy training by working for Representative Earl Blumenauer (OR-03), one of the “sustainability and livability champions in the House,” after graduating from William & Mary.
After working for Blumenauer for five years, Cappa continued to refine her policy and advocacy skills working with NGOs, focused on global food and water security, sustainability and poverty alleviation and pursuing a Master’s of Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School. In her Master’s thesis, Cappa acted as a consultant for WWF, studying and making recommendations about US policy to combat illegal logging. Now working directly for WWF, she has continued to address the implementation and enforcement of illegal logging policy.
Reflecting on her experience at William & Mary and her career so far, Cappa has several pieces of advice for students who want to pursue careers in environmental policy. First, she suggests students develop expertise in a topic that they’re passionate about, so they can stay motivated and enthusiastic about their work. Second, she recommends students allow that topic to drive them, regardless of where it takes them.
“Don’t get hung up on where you work at first, as long as you’re doing something you can connect back to the change you want to see. If you have that thing you’re driving towards, you can get there,” she said.
Cappa also encouraged students to use their coursework to explore current issues that matter to them.
“Try to use your assignments to dig into things you’re struggling with or thinking about, instead of just trying to get something done – like I sometimes did,” she stated.
Next, Cappa highlighted the importance of relationships to a career in public policy.
“If you don’t inherit a network, and most of us don’t, be intentional about creating your own network in your field. Think of building meaningful relationships in your field as part of your job,” she advised.
Finally, Cappa emphasized the value of being bold and assertive in your career, especially for young women.
“Don’t be afraid to push. Negotiate for salary, benefits, raises, projects. Grow into that leadership space, because if you don’t take it, someone else will. Of course, be humble, be collaborative, and collegial, but don’t be afraid to speak up. Your voice is valuable,” she stressed.
Through her career, Cappa has put her William & Mary education to work, fighting to protect the planet’s precious natural resources and she’s confident that others can too.
“If you’re using your passion and interest and you know what you want to see in the world, you can pull together the experiences you’ve had, the skills you’ve learned, and the connections you’ve made to advance your career and your ability to have an impact as you move forward.”