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My Story: From The Peace Corps To Sustainability At Ross

sheenaWhen Sheena VanLeuven was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, she did not study business. She devoted herself to American environmental policy, examining the laws and regulations surrounding U.S. land, air, and water. Now 29, she is in her second year of an MBA/MS program at the School of Natural Resources and the Environment (SNRE) and the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. She studies environmental policy and planning, as well as business strategy.

Here’s her story:

I grew up in Portland, Oregon, and went to the University of Chicago for college. After I graduated, I joined the Peace Corps, where I was an Environmental Action Volunteer in Benin. Originally I was supposed to be designing a village waste-management system, but the nonprofit where I worked actually felt apart while I was there.

I ended up undertaking a number of independent projects related to public health. I taught nutrition and led HIV/AIDS education workshops with a team of local students. I also secured a grant to create a library for female students in the area.

I’ve always been interested in environmental issues. When I was finishing my time in the Peace Corps, I began to wonder what my next steps should be. I knew I wanted a career that related to the environment and sustainability, and I was interested in engaging the business sector in solving our most pressing environmental problems.

I wanted credibility in both the business and environmental worlds, so I decided to get a dual degree in business and environmental science and policy. That way I would learn the necessary skills to engage with businesspeople, as well as the technical depth that comes from environmental studies.

There are a lot of excellent schools with this type of dual-degree program, and it was a huge decision to choose the University of Michigan. I also seriously considered Yale and Duke, both of which have really high-quality programs.

Ultimately, I chose Michigan because its program is administered through an overarching administrative body, called the Erb Institute. The institute helps to create a cohesive community of dual-degree students, providing both financial and social support. It’s also a research institute and a thought leader in sustainable business. We actually call ourselves “Erb students.”

In the dual-degree program, students spend one full year at Ross, and one full year at SNRE. The final year includes a combination of classes at both schools.

There’s one required class for all “Erb” students, which changes a bit every year. My first year, we had to design a sustainable business that targeted “base-of-the-pyramid” customers: low-income consumers, often in the developing world. Our professor encouraged us to combine environmental considerations and business knowledge into a final project.

My group designed a marketing business to connect customers with the producers of stoves in third-world countries. Another group designed a business that used agriculture to create biochar, which can increase soil fertility. A third designed a simple water filtration system that could be installed in storefronts in developing countries. The water could then be sold to neighbors in the area.

My favorite class so far was called Environmental Policy and Politics, and it is taught at the School of Natural Resources. It’s a seminar with discussion at the center of every class. The professor, Dr. Steven Yaffee, is fantastic; he emphasizes the importance of understanding governmental and policy approaches to the environment.