Undergraduate profile: A full circle of sustainability
As a first-generation college student, Veronica Johnson was vaguely familiar with Rice. On a campus visit in 2011, she fell in love with the school, especially its residential college system. When she arrived, she realized she was in a place where she could make an impact.
When she matriculated in 2012, she intended to major in environmental engineering. She soon switched to civil engineering. After realizing that wasn’t something she wanted to do, she decided to try ecology and evolutionary biology—then to take on a double major in environmental science. After one final change, she now plans to graduate in December 2016 with a degree environmental engineering and minors in energy and water sustainability, and environmental studies.
Her desire to try different environmental-themed majors and minors came from an Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trip two years ago to Mission: Wolf, a wolf sanctuary in Colorado dedicated to caring for and educating people about the importance of wolves in nature.
“My first trip to Mission: Wolf completely changed my view of the world,” she said. “Before that, my roommate always had to remind me to turn out the lights or recycle.”
Seeing nature up close, not only interacting with the wolves, but looking at the stars without the light pollution found in cities, made Johnson realize the importance of protecting the environment—and she came back to campus determined to be an environmental leader.
“One of the biggest problems our generation faces is ensuring that the air we breathe and the earth we are part of remains livable,” she said. “We need to work together to preserve nature, to address the threat of climate change.”
Last spring, when it was time to apply for ASB trips, she and Ben Baldazo, a sophomore chemistry major, applied to lead a trip back to Mission: Wolf. The Center for Civic Leadership, which oversees Rice’s ASB program, rejected their application. That didn’t deter Johnson, who decided to create a new student club, the Rice Wildlife Conservation Corps (RWCC), and reserve a spot to volunteer at Mission: Wolf anyway. She and 12 other RWCC members, including the club’s faculty sponsor, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Evan Siemann, spent their spring break at the wolf sanctuary, She said the new club has done much more than just host that trip.
“RWCC focuses on education and volunteer work in wildlife conservation. Aside from the spring break trip, we’ve also visited the St. Frances Wolf Sanctuary in Montgomery, Texas and the NOAA Fisheries Service Galveston Laboratory for Ocean Discovery Day. We’ve had a couple of documentary screenings, including Cowspiracy and Racing Extinction. Our largest event was an ‘Endangered Species’ lunch talk, which featured four Rice faculty members talking about their research. When it comes to environmental issues, there is a huge disconnect,” she said. “If people are not exposed to wildlife, to nature, they don’t necessarily understand the importance of protecting the environment. So any kind of exposure can help people develop a deeper connection. I know it did for me.”
Johnson also serves as the communication intern for the Administrative Center for Sustainability and Energy Management (ACSEM), working for Richard Johnson, the center’s director. She’s responsible for managing the “Sustainability at Rice” social media accounts and updating Rice’s sustainability website. Johnson recently began writing articles for the Sustainability at Rice newsletter, which she helped establish.
“Last summer, we went through a benchmarking process, looking at other universities to see what they were doing with sustainability newsletters,” she said. “We gathered a lot of information and we launched our own newsletter, which we publish every month.”
That internship has allowed her to find a niche she enjoys, and following graduation, she hopes to put her environmental engineering knowledge and communications experience to work in either higher education or in business.
Johnson realizes she’s received a unique opportunity at Rice, a place where she could grow and change her mind about things until she found the right fit. That space has given her a focus for life, and she wants to be sure she gives back.
“With each thing I’ve done, I’ve become more and more passionate about environmental issues,” she said. “And I not only want to learn more, I want to teach others how important this is.”