University Of Wisconsin Extension Career Director Interview: Green Is Here To Stay

By Jill Randolph

The following is an interview transcript with Robin MacDonald of The University of Wisconsin-Extension's online Bachelor of Science in Sustainable Management program. Ms. MacDonald serves as Student Services Coordinator. Prior to that, she was an Enrollment Facilitator at Madison Area Technical College. She earned her M.S. in counseling from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Bachelor of Science in Sustainable Management is a collaborative effort of the University of Wisconsin-Extension and four UW campuses - UW-Parkside, UW-River Falls, UW-Stout, and UW-Superior - and is designed to provide the knowledge and skills students need to create profitable and healthy businesses, while sustaining the environment. Fall 2009 course enrollments for the new degree are nearly twice what was originally anticipated. The 21-course, 63-credit degree completion is the first online degree with a minimal carbon footprint and the personal flexibility that online learning has always offered. Courses are available and accessible wherever there's an Internet connection.

Interview Transcript

Jill Randolph: What do you think are the most important things high school students should do in order to get into the best possible school, and how soon should they start working on their plan?

Robin MacDonald: For our particular program, we're focused on non-traditional students, so many of them have already started down an established career path and are either seeking to retool or to start anew. These are adults who are coming back to school to complete their studies or earn a new degree. The key factor for admittance into the Sustainable Management degree is that students have a broad liberalized base, because they need to have 60 transferable college credits to be eligible. It's really important for prospective students to complete a self-assessment of their skills and interests so they'll be sure they're heading in the right direction. For adult students, I think that time investment upfront is especially important, because they have a limited period to be in school before they have to return to the job market. Before beginning a program, we recommend students job shadow and complete some informational interviews to make sure they're making the right choice and are going to be happy working in their chosen field.

Jill Randolph: You stated that most of your students are nontraditional; do most have an associate's degree, some coursework, or are they coming back for a second bachelor's degree?

Robin MacDonald: We have a mix of traditional students who are 19 or 20 years old, who are interested in this major. However, a majority of our students are adults who have completed some coursework and are in the process of earning their degree later in life. We also have quite a few students with bachelor's degrees who find sustainability studies so compelling that they want to change their career, so they come back to school to earn a second degree. In fact, we even have students who have earned a master's degree but are looking to make a major career change.

Jill Randolph: What are the most common trends you are seeing among incoming students?

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Robin MacDonald: With sustainability becoming a more conventional and important part of the marketplace, our program is doing very well and has received a lot of interest. The fact that courses are offered online has also been a big selling point, as more students seem to prefer that option so they can schedule their jobs, family and other responsibilities around their class work.

Another thing I have noticed about our students is that they are looking to integrate sustainability with other career paths they are really passionate about. The reality is that sustainable management is not just for green jobs, but nearly every job involves some aspect of sustainability. Water will not suddenly become plentiful; energy will not become less expensive; and the planet will not suddenly cool. Carbon has become currency and water is not far behind. Green is here to stay and students recognize this.

Jill Randolph: Are your online classes available to out-of-state residents, and do they have to pay non-resident fees?

Robin MacDonald: Students from Wisconsin, California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Pennsylvania and two other countries so far (China and Germany) are enrolled in our online green degree. The tuition is $350 per credit, and it's the same for everyone, whether they live in Wisconsin or anywhere else. As far as the online convenience factor goes, it's very suitable for many students. It doesn't matter what time zone one lives in, which seems to be working out really well for all students regardless of where they are.

Jill Randolph: What are companies doing to become environmentally progressive?

Robin MacDonald: The most innovative companies in America are pushing ahead of the curve. This is a program shaped by the companies that are leading the way in business sustainability such as Johnson Controls and Ford Motor Company. These companies provided us with the core competencies they believe to be essential to functioning in the new sustainable economy where the Triple Bottom Line is the new measure of business success. UW faculty then built a curriculum around these competencies. Our program doesn't simply look at environmental issues; instead it analyzes the Triple Bottom Line, which looks at people, profits, and our planet. It's not about simply saving valuable finite resources, but also looking at how businesses can streamline their manufacturing to be both more sustainable and cost-effective. Our "people, profit, planet" concept shows small scale changes can make a large impact, so it is not only something we can feel good about, but also something that will make businesses more sustainable in terms of making more money and employing more people.

Jill Randolph: Has there been talk of offering more environmental programs at your school?

Robin MacDonald: Absolutely. The bachelor's program was announced in May and by August, we had double the number of enrollments than we originally expected. We're developing green certificates and we've had a lot of interest and people are asking if we are going to offer a Sustainable Management master's program.

Jill Randolph: Does that also include online students?

Robin MacDonald: Online programs increase the access to education; so yes, we definitely design programs with nontraditional adult students in mind, those who benefit most from online programs. They don't have to take the time to drive to campus, hire a babysitter, or any of the other inconveniences of a traditional program. As a result, we seem to be reaching even more adults than we expected.

Jill Randolph: Is there anything such as videoconferencing included in the curriculum, or is it all online?

Robin MacDonald: We use Desire2Learn, D2L, as our platform, and a lot of students have mentioned specifically that they really appreciate the discussion forums where they can have virtual conversations with their classmates about what they are learning. Many students are finding that to be a huge part of their learning process. Case studies are often used in place of quizzes and exams as well.

Jill Randolph: That can be very beneficial because it forces students to look at topics more analytically, rather than simply reading text and absorbing information passively.

When students take tests and quizzes, is that all done online as well?

Robin MacDonald: Yes, students take quizzes and tests at home. The tests are designed not to need a proctor, so they don't have to leave home in order to be tested.

Jill Randolph: Once a student graduates from the program do they receive a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science?

Robin MacDonald: A Bachelor of Science.

Jill Randolph: Most colleges and universities around the country don't offer classes or programs about environmental sustainability. The program is extremely unique in that you offer the classes online and without out-of-state rates.

Robin MacDonald: We're among the first but others are certainly poised to follow. Today the need for this program is clear. The future of the country will be heavily dependent on its ability to compete in the Green Economy, and nearly all sectors will be impacted. What is also evident is that this is a very dynamic and rapidly evolving area so the program and its eventual graduates will have to be nimble, flexible, and highly multidisciplinary.

Jill Randolph: What are the three most important things students can do to try to find a job in the environmental sustainability field?

Robin MacDonald: First, we'll provide opportunities for students to connect with our advisory board. Second, a Capstone Project is the last class students take in the program, and we strongly encourage them to complete an internship or project. Keep in mind that the definition of internship is slightly different since returning students typically have full-time jobs already that they cannot leave for the summer or a semester. So we're redefining "greenternships" with this in mind. We are also collaborating with an organization that will help students who are interested in changing jobs to an environmental path.

Nothing, however, takes the place of effective networking. Talking to professors and professionals in the field is a great way to gain experience and exposure. I think networking is huge, especially when entering into what is a relatively new field in a lot of ways. There aren't as many experts in sustainability as there are in fields that have been around a long time, so I think networking creates opportunities to dive in and become an expert.

Jill Randolph: Do you think most employers are more interested in students networking their way into companies or are employers still leaning more towards traditional methods to fill open positions?

Robin MacDonald: Networking is really important and helpful when looking for jobs. Students in our program have opportunities to meet with people in their industry and with the advisory board, and there are additional opportunities planned which will allow students to work more often with our board. We don't just want to build a network, we also want to learn as much as possible about the growing number of green opportunities, so our students are aware of the different prospects and become more attractive candidates. I think people will continue to use both methods of job searching, networking and traditional, but I think networking is really important, if simply for a great reference when students apply blindly for a job.

Jill Randolph: What's the average starting salary for a job in sustainable management?

Robin MacDonald: Our research indicates starting salaries are in the $60,000 range and are projected to have huge growth through 2016.

Jill Randolph: You had said that biology and chemistry are prerequisites. Are there any other recommendations you make to prospective students who have no idea about green initiatives? Is there anything they need to do to stand out as a desirable candidate for your program and, ultimately to employers?

Robin MacDonald: Because we offer an online program, the goal is to be very inclusive so we will build and add sections as needed--the goal is not to turn students away.

Jill Randolph: Do you know if there are any concrete benchmarks a company must meet before it can claim being green or sustainable, or do you think that any green step is a step in the right direction, even if it's a baby step?

Robin MacDonald: Because being green is a current trend, people are jumping on the bandwagon solely for profit, not because they truly care about sustainability or the environment. Legitimizing the use of the word 'green' in marketing is in the process of being defined, but there is still a long way to go. Our professors are looking at all types of green solutions, and it's really more of a systematic thought process that is being taught here. Students are going to walk out of the program with a big picture perspective on the industry. They are going to understand the ecological ramifications of decisions: the ecosystem principles that are being impacted, long-term human resource issues, bottom-line profits from both a short-term perspective and long-term perspective, and how new technology and implementations are going to be effective. It's more about looking at all the different factors that impact a decision when it comes to evaluating whether or not something is sustainable.

Jill Randolph: What do you recommend students do to stand out from other job applicants?

Robin MacDonald: Having concrete projects to talk about to future potential employers will definitely benefit any applicant when they get to the interview process.

Jill Randolph: What advice do you offer to students regarding work-life balance once they start working full-time?

Robin MacDonald: We talk about work-life balance in school. Right now most of our students are working full or part-time, going to school, and many are parents as well. We talk with them about having time to get enough sleep, and taking time to relax so they are not stressed out. It's important that they take advantage of the services we offer such as a writing lab, technical support, and study skills tips. And we encourage everyone to take advantage of our Online Student Community, a virtual student union which offers camaraderie, project tools and online resources and tips to make college life easier for returning students.

Jill Randolph: Do you have any career-related books or websites you recommend to your students, especially those that might help them break into different facets of the sustainability field?

Robin MacDonald: We post nationally available opportunities on our online student union as well as promote a large number of resources for sustainability news, so these are all available once a student registers. We are creating opportunities for students with our networking efforts and through our advisory board as well, and more green opportunities are growing all the time.

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