It was by chance that Semee Yoon, a Columbia College junior studying economics, ended up working toward the undergraduate special concentration in sustainable development. Her first introduction to the field occurred while working as a translator for the Korean Federation of Environmental Movement. There she acquired exposure to sustainable development firsthand as she translated for professionals specializing in the conservation of the Korean wetlands. But it was not until she read The End of Poverty by Jeffrey D. Sachs that she realized the connection between economics and sustainable development and decided to declare the special concentration in sustainable development.
Now entering its second year, the special concentration in sustainable development is an undergraduate program that attracts a variety of students, like Semee, from a wide range of majors within the College and the School of General Studies. The special concentration is not a standalone concentration; it is intended to serve as a complement to the disciplinary specialization and methodological training inherent in a concentration or major. Both Ruth DeFries, Denning Family Professor of Sustainable Development, and Kevin Griffin, interim director of the special concentration, agree that “the concentration gives students insights into the many areas of study—including economics, ecology, earth science and policy—that are so intertwined in the real-world challenges of sustainable development.” A total of nine courses and one practicum are required. The academic program is structured to provide students with courses in both natural and social science systems and a variety of electives that address stresses and solutions. Students gain experience in the practice of sustainable development through the 1-point practicum or internship.
By attending lectures and career panels, becoming active in student organizations, and pursuing internship opportunities, students gain broad perspectives on sustainable development and gather ideas on shaping their future goals. Semee has taken advantage of such opportunities by participating in Columbia University’s Summer Ecosystem Experiences for Undergraduates Program, also known as SEE-U. Semee spent five and a half weeks in the Dominican Republic where she learned about the ecosystems of the Indigenous Eyes Ecological Reserve. Her specific focus was on how the development of a local golf course affected the life systems of the lagoons. This was Semee’s first exposure to research and she felt it was an extremely rewarding opportunity. She then went on to apply her SEE-U research experience to her work with the Korea Environment Institute during the following summer. As a research assistant, Semee researched the development of evaluation indexes for Korean firms to use in their preparations for the risks associated with climate change.
Another experience that has greatly shaped Semee’s dedication to sustainable development has been serving as the Korean undergraduate student representative at the COP14 UN Climate Change Conference in Poland. She was honored to attend this event, which is organized by the Korea Energy Management Corporation (KEMCO), after taking third place in an essay competition focused climate change. Semee was the only undergraduate representative and felt that “the opportunity to attend this conference was extremely valuable for me to gain more perspective by having actual conversations with representatives from all over the world and hear their views on issues like climate change and the varying ways that developed and developing countries achieve sustainable development, depending on their cultures, needs and resources.” Semee truly enjoyed this event as she was exposed to the methods of how NGOs, government officials and locals work together to sustain natural resources. This exposure has confirmed her commitment to sustainable development and inspired her future pursuits.
In the future, Semee has plans to engage in graduate studies in environmental science, development and/or policy. She aspires to follow in the footsteps of her professors by gaining real-world experience while making contributions to the field of research. Semee would like to raise awareness on the importance of conserving and sustaining resources and biodiversity with a longtime goal of eventually eradicating poverty in developing countries within Asia and Africa. Pursuing the special concentration in sustainable development concurrently with her studies in economics will play a major part in helping her bring her personal and professional goals to fruition.
The special concentration in sustainable development is designed to provide Columbia students with an understanding of both the theory and practice of sustainable development, stimulate a critical examination of the historical and conceptual antecedents, provide experience in complex challenges through direct engagement, and help students imagine alternative futures for the world. With the first class of students graduating in May with the special concentration, and the development of an undergraduate major on the horizon, those involved are excited to see what the future will bring for the field of sustainable development and how Columbia students will engage in and make contributions to the conservation of the resources we rely on in our ever-changing world.