Melanie Stansbury M.S. ‘07 came to Cornell intending to earn her Ph.D. in development sociology, with a focus on the governance of water and resolving policy conflicts around tribal and indigenous water rights. One impactful course influenced the trajectory of her career: Environmental Policy Processes (NTRES 4300). The year-long course includes traditional classroom learning in fall and spring, and a 12-day January component where students live together in Washington, DC and meet, interview, and learn from policymakers, agency staffers, and non-governmental organizations.
Now a Congresswoman representing New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District, Stansbury is writing legislation that focuses on the nexus between science, economic development, community wellbeing, and environmental sustainability.
“I ended up in government because of that class,” she said. “It gave me the opportunity to talk with people who worked on the Hill, who worked in the White House, who were in the agencies. It was literally that class that got me interested in actually going into public policy work. Many of the connections I made through that class continue to be professional connections and colleagues and mentors who I still work with today.”
Faculty in the Center for Conservation Social Sciences have been teaching the Environmental Policy Processes course for 35 years, opening career pathways for students and helping them learn how to effectively influence federal environmental policy.
Navigating the policy environment
Barbara Knuth, Associate Director of CCSS and Professor in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment (DNRE), co-developed the course first offered in 1987, with colleagues Bruce Wilkins and Richard McNeil, both late emeritus professors of natural resources.
“Knowing how to navigate the policy environment – how to influence policy and how to identify the important actors in the policy process – is really important to be an effective professional in the natural resource and environmental management world,” Knuth said.
Students enroll in a fall semester course where they are introduced to public policy processes and actors and prepare for an immersive experience in Washington, DC. During the January intersession, students and faculty stay at the Cornell Wolpe Center on Dupont Circle where they examine case studies on topics such as Arctic Ocean offshore oil drilling, coal ash disposal, and clean water policy. They learn from panels of professionals involved in environmental policy, including congressional staff, agency scientists, industry and business representatives, and environmental advocates. Students conduct interviews and do research on a policy brief of their choice, such as indigenous land claims, endangered species, high-speed rail, or shale gas drilling.
“Many students who take this course have never been to Washington, DC, and have never conducted an interview and they frequently feel nervous at first about talking with professionals,” Knuth said. “But when they come back from doing these interviews, they’ll say, ‘the interview went for two hours and they took me out to lunch afterwards.’ The students really get immersed and excited. The policy person gets excited by all the questions and enthusiasm the student is bringing and the student gets exposed to so many different ideas and career possibilities. It really has been a life-changing experience for many students, and the personal interactions are such a rich element of the course.”
The course is now taught by Bruce Lauber Ph.D. ‘96, CCSS Director and Senior Research Associate in DNRE, and Cliff Kraft ‘75, Professor in DNRE.
Rachel Erlebacher ‘16 took the course while completing her degree in Environmental and Sustainability Sciences. Now a professional staff member for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Erlebacher oversees funding requests on agriculture, rural development, and the Food and Drug Administration, among others.
“It was daunting to cold contact people and ask for interviews for my policy brief; I felt like, ‘I’m just this undergrad student and I don’t want to burden you with this.’ But Bruce and Cliff told us that professionals love talking about what they do, they’re passionate about it, so they’ll usually enjoy talking with you,” Erlebacher said. “And now that I am a professional working in government, that is exactly how I feel. I enjoy talking with the students and helping them figure out their own paths. I remember that feeling of being really appreciative of people talking with me and helping me navigate the networking world, so I’m happy to be able to do that for students now.”
Grace Tucker ‘17 took the course as part of her major in Environmental and Sustainability Sciences. Now a senior analyst for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Tucker works to support climate-resilient coasts and watersheds.
“The in-D.C. component of the course definitely made me more comfortable moving to D.C. when I got an internship there later. It was a great way to sort of dip my toe into the Washington world,” Tucker said. “There’s so much living history in D.C., and being surrounded by the buildings – all the museums, the Capitol and other federal agencies – is a really cool experience.”
While in Washington, CCSS faculty host an alumni reception where past and current students can meet and network. Those receptions continue to benefit Cornellians, years after they’ve taken the course, Tucker said.
“I think those events are just as helpful for alumni as they are for students; you may meet someone who’s working on the same legislation you are, or you can get advice on job openings or job application tips,” Tucker said. “And everyone loves to give back and help current students.”
Valuing multiple perspectives
Richard Benware ‘06, MPA ‘08, took the course while completing his dual majors in Biology and Applied Economics and Management. He did his policy brief on PCB contamination in the Hudson River – an issue of great importance in his hometown of Queensbury, NY.
“Where I grew up, you would see billboards saying either ‘GE is trying to kill you,’ or ‘the EPA is trying to kill you,’ depending on who put it up,” Benware said.
The environmental policy course enabled Benware to learn in depth from the perspectives of many actors in policy debates, and to see that people with very different political identities and values were sincere in their beliefs and working in good faith, he said. That lesson has continued to serve him in his work with the EPA, where he is now an Environmental Protection Specialist working on issues like regulating pollution from coal-fired power plants.
“Part of the deal in working for a political agency is that important policies you’ve spent a long time working on can go back and forth with changes in administration. That can sometimes be frustrating,” Benware said. “But if you do your homework, and you give political appointees the benefit of the doubt, most of the time they will listen to you.”
“Our alumni are fantastic and this program wouldn’t work without their support,” Lauber said. “This course is so beneficial for our students. I think it gives them a better sense than we ever could on campus of how environmental policymaking works in the real world.”
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