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Sawaya gets and shares expert advice on sustainability careers

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     W&M student Gina Sawaya has produced many podcasts with alumni working in sustainable careers as part of her assignment as eco-ambassador to the Cohen Career Center.  Photo by Jim Ducibella
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At the same time she hopes she will find a sustainability job for herself, Gina Sawaya is providing a hopeful roadmap for other William & Mary students looking to find one, too.

Sawaya, who will graduate from William & Mary in December with degrees in biology and environmental science, is eco-ambassador to the university’s Cohen Career Center. Guided by Wendy Webb-Robers and Don Snyder, the Career Center’s director and associate director, Sawaya has produced podcasts with alumni working in the sustainability field.

“The questions I typically ask have to do with their career history, what they’ve done since graduating from W&M, what is their job now?” Sawaya said. “Also, is it meaningful to you? What do you like and dislike? What are some skills that you have? Then what advice would you give to William & Mary students? They’ve all been very nice to deal with.”

The conversations normally last 30 to 40 minutes, after which Sawaya edits them down to about 10. They can be found on the Cohen Career Center website, under the heading “The Future of Green Careers.”

Calandra Waters Lake, director of sustainability, and Randy Chambers, director of the Keck Environmental Field Laboratory, see tremendous value in Sawaya’s work.

“It’s not easy being green; it’s not easy finding green jobs,” Chambers said. “Her project to interview folks who are actually in green industries is important because it helps students identify with folks who are actually making it in the world, using and dealing with sustainability issues. Just having students exposed to this tells students ‘Yeah, I could do that,’ and that might be an opportunity for them to explore.”

Lake added that students often aren’t aware that “almost anything can be a green career.”

“Students are very interested in sustainability as a career, but understanding the breadth and complexity of that field can be difficult,” she said. “Gina’s project exposes students to some of that wide range and also identifies alums who are usually willing to be contacted by students with follow up questions or those seeking additional advice. It is a valuable contribution to the career services at William & Mary.”

The project has helped Sawaya plot her future endeavors. Where once she seemed sure she would have to pursue a Ph.D. in order to procure a satisfying position, her interviews have taught her otherwise. That doesn’t mean she still won’t get one, but she has options.

“Just learning what people do without a higher degree is really cool,” she said. “Knowing you don’t have to have a higher degree to have a career in sustainability has been a relief to hear.”

Most enlightening to her was a conversation she had with Derek Eisel ’94, who lives in Seattle and sells software that helps companies go green.

“He said a lot of things that really stuck, and that ended up turning into questions,” Sawaya said.

Eisel shared his frustration at what he considered Virginia’s less accepting position on sustainability beyond the W&M campus. Sawaya could identify. She has felt it, too. Many people, she said, just don't believe in it.

“I want to have conversations about sea-level rise, saving animals, increasing bio-diversity, making sure that our food is sustainable for future generations," she said.

The podcasts she’s produced, she said, will help her – and anyone else who cares to listen – find places where that can happen.