An Overwhelming Day

February 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

Today was one of those days that made me question everything. My life, my choices, my future… I am so mentally drained that I just want to curl up into a ball with South Park and my kitty and just focus on what I’m going to wear tomorrow or what color of eyeliner to buy next from Target or something stupid like that.

But I can’t.

I can only focus on the whirlwind of questions in my mind that today has created.

Simply put, what I am majoring in, sustainability, is mentally and emotionally draining. I won’t go into extreme detail for fear of confusing everybody, but there are basically three main categories of sustainability – social, economic, and environmental – and my concentration in this field focuses primarily on the social aspect of it. Society. People. Peoples’ wants and needs and goals and dreams and futures and safety and happiness.

The concepts behind social sustainability are not concrete or set in stone. They are very conceptual and theoretical. Therefore, while we learn concrete fact about peoples’ situations and certain rules and regulations behind different ways of implementing policies that change said situations, most of what we talk about is theory. Reading off my notes I took in one of my classes today, we talk about internal framework, hypothetical situations, social development. Hyden’s crescendo: evolving, diffusing, insulating. Layers of government. Data and arguments. Flow of information vs. misinformation. Roles and influences of technology and geography. Capacity building.

Is that confusing, or is that confusing?

Some days I chip in happily with the class conversations. I take my notes and nod as my professors explain models and ideas and realities that collectively make up one way of doing things, or explain why some people do something a certain way, or determine whether or not an immediate solution is needed in a situation. Some days I get it. I understand.

And then there are some days where my professors are firing off terms and abstract ideas and some of my older, wiser classmates are debating amongst themselves and are quoting articles, books, other universes for all I know, and I sit in complete shock and wonder how I ever managed to get accepted into the School of Sustainability; I ask myself why I didn’t major in something like art, or design, or communications, or something that wouldn’t drive me insane, something that wouldn’t keep my mind churning for hours on end, something that wouldn’t make me question my capabilities and my role on this planet and my very existence.

There is just no other way to say this: the more I know about the field of sustainability, the less prepared I feel to be entering it.

Days like today are the ones that make me sit with my head in my hands and despair because I don’t feel worthy enough to be in this program. The mess we humans have gotten ourselves into is so complex, so complicated, that I can’t wrap my head around it and I hate myself for not understanding fully. Maybe that’s where the true problem lies. I’m an egomaniac that wants to be the smartest of them all, and I can’t stand the fact that while I want to be a top academic that people look to for guidance, I just don’t have all the answers.

Days like today are the ones that make me think… what in the living hell did I get myself into?

Careers, my poor mind starts sputtering like a broken record. Of course that’s the first thing I think about. I’m 21, going to graduate in a year, and need to find a career if I’m ever going to survive in this lion’s den that is the real world. What career will I end up in if I continue down this road? Will I be a successful humanitarian someday? Will people listen to me? Will I know what to do? Will my life ever be in jeopardy from trying to work with those who need help? Will I be happy?

And what about the determinedly ignorant people who refuse to see that sustainable solutions must surface if there is to be hope for humanity? How do I even function when they exist? How do I do my potential job? How do I convince them I have their best interests at heart? What about those who refuse to do anything because they are so convinced their God will just solve everything with a wave of a magic wand? How do I possibly get through to them? How do I tell them it is okay to believe in a higher being, but scientific fact backs up these sustainability-related problems and they require real, equally scientific solutions? How do I try and help those who refuse to see the giant mess they are sitting in? How – in reference to an awesome quote from the movie Avatar – do I fill a cup that is already full?

How do I help governments work together? How do I help developing nations rise out of poverty? How do I stop wars? How do I stop crime? How do I stop hunger? How do I improve education? How do I spread awareness to more fortunate groups of people? How do I redistribute power? How do I uplift those who have been beaten down? How do I promote equality? How does anyone in this field do any of that?? How do they do it without losing their minds? How do they (brace yourselves) sustain their abilities and follow their dreams of helping people at the same time?

How?

How?

Today I ask these questions. Today I am still in love with my field of study, but I am overwhelmed with emotion when I think of the fact that if nobody answers these questions, people will continue to die of starvation, disease, conflict, or thirst. People will continue to slowly destroy the only planet we have to live on.

Today I stand with my eyes to the sky, begging, beseeching whatever or whomever is up there, if there is anything up there, to guide me, to guide all of us.

I don’t have all the answers. Maybe no one does.

But today I simply try to have hope, because there are times like now where that is all I have.

But from this rises yet another question… is it enough?

Going For It

January 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

I have been thinking about the future a lot lately. When I say future, I’m not talking about it in general terms as a sustainability major should. Instead, I’m rather selfishly thinking of my own future and what it holds for me. More specifically, I’m thinking about grad school and the rest of my undergraduate semesters. I’m thinking about careers, jobs I would love, work that I would love to get up in the morning for. It’s quite a lot to focus on at 21 years old, isn’t it? (Though at my age, my mom had just married my dad and was pregnant with me – a bit more thought consuming than a career, but I digress.)

But a few weeks ago, something a little more immediate and relevant came up in one of my classes, and it reminded me of a dream I’ve had for a long time.

It started with brochures. Lots of brochures.

“The School of Sustainability study abroad department is looking for more students to join these programs,” my professor told us all at the beginning of our lecture. She was passing around the handouts as she spoke. “They have lots of funding available for financial assistance they literally need to get rid of, so I encourage all of you to apply.”

I looked at my brochure. There were four summer programs available: Sustainability, Tourism, and Culture in Dubai, Energy, Sustainability, and Development in Spain and Morocco, Diversity and Sustainability in Ecuador, and Comparing Sustainability across Cultures and Governments in Washington D.C. and London.

I actually felt my heart leap upwards. Such intense longing I’ve only felt once before: when I was sixteen and staring at a letter that invited me to attend a National Youth Leadership Conference in Washington D.C. for ten days during that summer. I was able to go to D.C. five years ago and I left a piece of my heart there. I did not want to leave. If I hadn’t had a plane ticket back home I’d probably still be there.

But London, too? To be able to go to my favorite place in the world and visit a place I’ve always dreamed of going to all over the course of a few weeks? And study something that blended perfectly with my track area (Policy and Governance in Sustainable Systems) and my minor (Political Science) at the same time? It was almost too good to be true. It was as though the academic gods got together, looked at my ASU profile, and said, “Okay, guys, what kind of program can we put together that Alexis Roeckner would be the most qualified for and go absolutely freaking nuts over?”

Me in front of National Archives in 2008

Me in front of National Archives in 2008

I emailed one of the program managers and asked for more details about applying for the apparently available financial aid. She emailed me back and told me she checked my eligibility and that if I wanted to participate in the program, it was done. She also recommended I meet with the faculty director of the program, and so I happily scheduled a meeting with him for a few days later. We talked for half an hour, during which my longing to participate in the program skyrocketed. When I said, jokingly, that I was slightly disappointed that a trip to London would not include a day trip in Paris, he laughed and said, “It’s one of things where it’s like… you’re down there already, you might as well go. I have a feeling we’ll be headed down there for a bit while we’re in the U.K.”

Cue leaping, bounding heart that strained to get out of my body and leap and jump and dance and go absolutely, completely insane.

I have lots of dreams, but one of my biggest ones is to visit the Louvre in Paris. Even the idea of me finally being able to visit that museum makes tears come to my eyes. Washington D.C. plus London plus Paris too?

And so I spent the remainder of our meeting trying not to look like a completely desperate, emotional, and crazy undergrad student and instead asked questions about the details of the program and the planning that had gone into it. Then I made sure the information I had about applying for financial aid was correct, the faculty director wished me luck, and I went on my merry way.

I would be financing the entire trip myself, so task number one is to apply for the financial aid they’re giving away to qualified students. I know I’m already eligible for the program. What remains to be seen is if I’m eligible for the financial aid. If I am, I can afford to go, granted I save enough for my airfare and food for two weeks. The program takes place at the end of June, so I would have enough time to work and save money.

I think life is too short to not take this chance. When am I ever going to be able to do something like this again? Who knows where I’ll be after I graduate? Who knows what opportunities I might have, what I might be doing? I think it’s time to go for it. Time to cast aside all worry and doubt. Time to take chances and risks.

I want this. I want this more than anything.

And so, from now until summertime, I am going to do everything in my power to try to make this happen.

Applying for financial aid consists of writing two essays, one detailing why we are interested in our program of choice and how it will help us to achieve our academic and professional goals, and the other specifying personal information about our circumstances the committee should consider. Below is the end of my first essay:

I have been entertaining the idea of going to graduate school in Washington D.C. once I have received my diploma from the School of Sustainability. The nation’s capital is home to American University and its School of International Service, and I am interested in AU’s master’s program in Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs. I believe that participating in this particular study abroad program will solidify my decision to do this. But who knows? Maybe this study abroad program will open up another idea or an opportunity of some sort. I take all the risks and chances in the world to find what it is I was meant to do, and I believe this program just might be one of those callings.

I sincerely hope this is true. I hope that this is my calling and that I get to heed it.

Sustainability and Hope

May 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have just completed my fourth semester of my college career, and for three of those semesters, I have taken at least one or two sustainability-related courses. I have loved every single one; looking back at all of my classes, they have been my favorites.

However, I have noticed something that occurs in every single one of these classes, something that struck me dumb the first time it happened and continues to confuse the hell out of me time and time again. Every sustainability class. A little happenstance that I notice every now and then that pulls on my conscious a little more each time.

In between lectures in these classes, my professors will have us review case studies that we have analyzed and ask us to offer potential solutions to the problems along with some possible tradeoffs. No matter what kind of anti-school mood we’re in, no matter if we’re talking about the Aral Sea drying up or New Orleans disappearing underwater or intervening in human rights issues around the world or whatever, we really get into these kinds of discussions. We come up with decent, potential resolutions that are real, are possible.

And then, then comes the bigger question from my professors:

“Now, let’s say we’re going to take this to the EPA or the IPCC. Apply it to real life. Would it actually work?”

There would come a pause as everybody considers this. And then…

“Is there hope?”

And then, and then…. nearly all of my classmates will shrug and shake their heads no, offering their reasons as to why such and such situation is a lost cause. They will say although it is a good idea to think positively, realistically speaking, no. It would not work, ever. We should give up. Leave the problem as a sunken cost.

And I sit and stare at them in disbelief and think to myself… Then why are you here?

Why would anybody in their right mind major in this controversial subject that does not necessarily secure a well-paying job – or any job at all, for that matter – a major that forces us to go to the depths of human injustice and dust out the far corners of mankind’s capabilities to come up with solutions to problems that could potentially destroy our entire existence…why would anybody put themselves through that unless they had any hope for the future?

There are so many people who don’t have the faintest clue as to what sustainability is (read my personal definition here), and when I am asked, I tell them the basics. We are finding solutions to social, economic, environmental problems that our world faces today and will face in the future. We are thinking of ways to not necessarily save our planet, for she does not need saving, but mankind.

What I don’t say, what I don’t mention, what I always forget, is this: sustainability is more than looking at graphs and calculating and predicting. It is more than surrendering your soul to homework and research and pledging to speak for those with no voice. It is more than thinking of ways to solve the problems of world hunger and poverty and desertification and deforestation and population growth and territorial disputes and water pollution and human rights while cooperating with all shareholders involved and minimizing tradeoffs.

Sustainability is about having faith in the unknown.

It is throwing caution to the winds and thriving during the unexpected. It is being prepared. It is knowing that every now and then we will never be prepared.

It is about trusting logic and trusting madness. It is dancing in the rain when plans have been made for the sun, finding new legs to stand on when all others have been destroyed.

Sustainability is thinking on your feet and planning for the future. It is never retreating, never giving up, and knowing there is always a way.

It is having hope during the most desperate of times. It is always looking to the horizon in search of new answers and never considering the words I can’t.

We don’t know what’s going to happen today, tomorrow, and far into the future. Mankind has only been around for between 200,000 and 300,000 years as opposed to the 4.6 billion years our planet has existed. We are less than nothing to our great Earth. She could purge us tomorrow if she needed to. And if we keep acting the way we do, she just might have a mind to, and I wouldn’t blame her.

But fellow sustainability majors, fellow workers in the sustainability field, we must always have hope. Sometimes it is all we have going forward. There will always be hope for a situation as long as we bring it with us. No matter how impossible the circumstance is when we approach it, we must always believe that in the end, everything will work itself out, and a solution will be applied to the problem.

After all, if we don’t have hope, who will?

If we don’t have it now, then when will it appear again?

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