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Launch of international internships for underrepresented students in sustainability

The University of Colorado Boulder in collaboration with Future Earth have launched a new programme to foster young leaders in sustainability. The programme, called Global Sustainability Scholars, seeks to train and build life-long networks among students who are underrepresented in the sciences. 

It’s a new approach to undergraduate education, says Kirsten Rowell, Director of Global Sustainability Scholars and Research Leadership at University of Colorado Boulder. Over three summers, Global Sustainability Scholars will send students to countries around the world to explore critical sustainability issues, such as growing pressures on food, energy and water resources. The scholars will learn how they can address these challenges using their technical expertise coupled with a transdisciplinary approach – a concept that emphasises designing and carrying out research projects in collaboration with people and organisations outside of academia. The students will be trained in how to engage with communities and stakeholders, especially those who don’t normally have a voice in science and policy.

“We’ll be going to these different countries and talking about issues around power – who has the power to make decisions or, commonly, who’s not at the table,” Rowell says. “This is a behind-the-scenes look at how sustainability organisations work and how decisions get made.”

The programme’s focus on experiential learning and exchanging ideas across cultures makes it an exciting venture, adds Jon Padgham, Capacity Building Lead at Future Earth.

“Global Sustainability Scholars will open new vistas for young scholars to expand their understanding of the world and to develop networks that reach across countries and continents,” he says.

Global Sustainability Scholars will begin accepting applications for its first cohort of students in fall 2018. In their first summer, these students will travel to three different countries to learn about how communities there are addressing issues around food, energy and water security – including more severe droughts and the challenges of providing food for growing populations. In their second and third summers, the scholars will complete internships with research teams funded through a recent effort of the Belmont Forum and Belmont Forum and the Joint Programming Initiative Urban Europe.

Currently, only students from the United States are eligible, but the programme is working to expand to additional countries. Global Sustainability Scholars is made possible through funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Rowell and Padgham say that they hope Global Sustainability Scholars will create more access to career paths and support for students who are underrepresented in the sciences. In the United States, black, Latina, Asian and other minority women earned only 4.6% of Ph.D.s in science and engineering in 2014, according to data from the National Science Foundation. For minority men, the number was even lower, 3.4%. That’s a problem because young leaders from diverse backgrounds can inject new ideas and perspectives into their fields.

“This programme is particularly exciting because it engages scholars from traditionally underrepresented groups, who tend not to pursue studies in sustainability science,” Padgham says. “Yet they also have the most to contribute to addressing vulnerabilities in marginalised communities that are grappling with climate change, threats to human health, food and water security and other sustainability challenges.”

Global Sustainability Scholars will provide young students with hands-on mentorship. But, ultimately, the programme will encourage the scholars to form support structures among themselves. In sustainability science, many students from underrepresented groups may be the only person of their race, religion or sexual orientation in their classes, Rowell says. Having a network to turn to for support can help those young leaders to navigate the challenges of school and work.

“As an underrepresented student progresses in her education, her community becomes smaller and smaller,” Rowell says. “But if she has a Skype meeting every week and a half with her peers, then there’s a support network who can say, ‘I’ve got your back. I’m cheering for you.'”