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Interview with an Ecological Design Resident
If you are passionate about the environment, have you ever considered a career in Environmental Sciences? In this interview, an ecological design resident talks about her unique job where she is immersed, both living and working in an experimental Ecovillage.

Q: What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How many years of experience do you have in this field? How would you describe yourself using only three adjectives?

A: I am an ecological design resident at an experimental Ecovillage and sustainable house at a small liberal arts college. I began the job two years ago, excited about the wide range of work I could be doing. If I had to choose just three adjectives to describe myself, I would say I am organized, outgoing, and knowledgeable.

Q: What’s your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what worked best?

A: I am a white female, which is fairly common in the world of environmental justice work. However, seeing as I do a great deal of work involving sustainable architecture and construction, as well as small-scale farming, I am often the only woman on a work team. I have never experienced open discrimination, but I have definitely felt alienated sometimes by the all-male crews. One thing that concerns me is how few ethnic minorities are present in the environmental field. The leadership in environmental careers has always seemed a little too homogenous for me.

Q: How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail? Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?

A: I am an environmental educator, a farmer, a designer, and a maintenance worker, all rolled into one. I teach a number of classes to groups of all ages on ecology and sustainability, I keep the buildings in good shape and run high-tech solar power and water catchment systems, and run a productive garden and orchard. Many people seem to automatically think of radical Greenpeace activists blocking whaling ships when they think of environmental workers. Though the field does have its fair share of radicals, many of us simply love science, ecology, agriculture, education, architecture, and have a deep desire to do good in the world and leave it to our children in better shape than it is now.

Q: On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What might need to change about your job to unleash your full enthusiasm?

A: I would rate my job as a seven on that scale. I absolutely adore what I do, but, as with many other jobs, environmental careers often deal with such large-scale problems and ideas that the work can simply never be finished. It is easy to get wrapped up in your job and work too much, and it is just as easy to quickly become cynical and jaded.

Q: If this job moves your heart – how so? Ever feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?

A: It brings me so much satisfaction to do so many small tasks that concretely improve the world. I am the person people in my community look to when they want to find solutions for their homes and businesses to save water and electricity, and I help to save thousands of gallons of water and thousands of kilowatts of electricity every year. I also get to spend each day educating people on topics about which I am deeply passionate and concerned. Seeing the curiosity and excitement on kids' faces when they grow their own carrots and learn how those came from soil and seeds is the real reason I continue to do this job, as well as the childlike enthusiasm adults show when the puzzle pieces of green buildings and ecology come together in their minds.

Q: Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?

A: When I was offered my current job, I just felt as though I was very lucky. I didn't have a great deal of work experience to back my application up, but it's not necessarily past jobs that make you good at environmental work. What someone needs to excel at this sort of job is a passion for learning. The education for sustainability work never ends, and you have to have a deep desire to always keep learning new things.

Q: How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?

A: I wouldn't do anything differently, actually. The job that I have currently is certainly not a high-paying one, but it is incredibly rewarding, and every day is different, so it never gets boring. I got started in this field purely by chance. I saw a subject that I was mildly interested in, and took a risk by applying to a job for which I didn't think I was qualified.

Q: What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?

A: The thing that I've learned over and over, in harder and harder ways, is that you always must ask questions of everyone you meet. Environmental work is something that you can learn in classrooms, but only to a certain extent. You must keep asking questions, or you will stagnate. If you hesitate to learn from those around you, to let them pass on their knowledge, sometimes you learn by seeing your garden die overnight or walking into a bathroom where greywater has flooded onto the floor. The important thing is that you can always learn new things from those catastrophes.

Q: What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?

A: The most important thing I have learned about the working world is to take chances. There's nothing to lose by applying to a job that excites you but for which you don't think you're qualified. You never know for what the person interviewing you might be searching, or how helpful seemingly meaningless past experiences might have been.

Q: What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?

A: Our work facility has an aquaponics facility where we breed fish for food. On some occasions, my fellows employees and I were asked to come out at four or so in the morning to jump into the large tanks of cold water to help catch fish for butchering and sending off to restaurants. Since I also live in the model sustainable house on the property, I also frequently come into the kitchen in my bathrobe on Saturday mornings, only to discover a large group of tourists peering into my windows, and knocking to request information.

Q: Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?

A: Teaching environmental education for children has been one of the most rewarding parts of my job. Connections in the environment which adults have trained themselves to ignore are so easy for kids to see, and they have so much energy and excitement for solving the problems in the world around them.

Q: What kind of challenges do you handle and what makes you want to just quit?

A: Environmental work can often feel hopeless, as one person can only do so much, even while the world around them seems to need such an inordinate amount of effort and energy. It is easy to become cynical, to start thinking the problems can never be fixed, or that your work is meaningless.

Q: How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance? How?

A: It's very difficult in this field to create a work-life division, much less a balance. The hours are often abnormal compared to friends' and relatives' jobs, and it always feels as though there's so much to be done that you simply cannot take a break. This does create stress, and it can be difficult to try to have a life outside of work, especially if you love what you're doing.

Q: What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?

A: No one can get rich doing sustainability and environmental organizing, unless, perhaps, they are working as a professor, or specializing in architecture. The average salary seems to be between $30,000-55,000, though most of us are happy with that amount because the work is so personally rewarding.

Q: How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?

A: I never take enough vacation time. I am allowed a standard amount, but often don't take it because of the aforementioned issue of simply having too much work to be done. I always have projects that I feel I can't leave.

Q: What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?

A: The amount of education required depends on what kind of position you want. Many get by happily on only informal, experienced-based qualifications, while those who want to be professors or architects will inevitably need advanced degrees.

Q: What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?

A: To a friend considering this line of work I would have to say that it can be wonderful, but that anyone who isn't deeply passionate about the environment will burn-out quickly, and may well end up miserable. You need a lot of positive energy to tackle such a varied and involved job.

Q: If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?

A: I would love to be doing similar work in five years, but I would prefer to be working independently. Working in environmental justice for someone else who is simply an administrator gets tiring, and it can feel difficult to really take ownership of projects. It would also be difficult to start a family with my current workload.