Looking back: retrospectives from two recent SMEA grads

The start of the new school year is just around the corner and it won’t be long before the UW campus is buzzing with students and faculty back in class. But before we move forward into this new academic year, we wanted a chance to reflect back on SMEA’s most recent graduating class. Two recent grads, Danielle Edelman and Valerie Cleland, look back at their time at SMEA sharing their experiences, insights and take aways.

By Danielle Edelman

Danielle speaking at graduation.

It’s hard to know what to say about SMEA now that I have finally graduated. For the last few months of the program, all I could think about was finishing my thesis and moving on from grad school so I could regain some desperately missed free time. Now that I am on the other side, however, it is starting to sink in that my cohort and I have accomplished so much together, and that we have so much to be proud of from the last two years. We all came in with so many goals and ideas of what we might achieve in grad school, and I think we have all come out with more than we expected.

When I chose SMEA for my master’s program, I knew I had selected an excellent school for my professional goals. What I didn’t expect was the extent to which the experiences and relationships I developed here would shape and redirect those goals. Every opportunity I took, from attending a meeting about Olympia oyster restoration in Washington to volunteering to help plan SEAS networking events, always led me to further and better opportunities. In the cases of the two I just mentioned, the oyster restoration meeting provided insights which led me to develop my thesis topic, and I eventually became the president of SEAS for the 2017-2018 school year. I know I am not the only person who found such a wealth of opportunities at SMEA, and I know that this benefit will endure after graduation through the incredible network our department has built over the years.

I am not sure what is next for me after SMEA. At the time of writing, I am taking advantage of yet another opportunity provided by grad school – that of taking a long break to travel and spend time with family and friends. I hope to be picked up for the Washington Sea Grant State Fellowship (formerly the Hershman Fellowship), but if not, I am not worried about where I will end up professionally. I feel confident that I am leaving SMEA better prepared to work as a boundary-spanner between marine science and environmental policy, which was the overall goal I hoped to achieve at the start of this program. From the experience I had last summer as an intern with NMFS, I know that the skills I have picked up in environmental law, policy, and decision-making will be incredibly useful in a variety of positions.

Beyond the practical skills and knowledge I gained in classes, I am most grateful to have spent the last two years learning with such a kind, thoughtful, and enthusiastic group of students and researchers. I know that we are all going on to accomplish incredible things, and I cannot wait to see what the future holds for us.

By Valerie Cleland

Valerie speaking at graduation

My two years at SMEA have reinforced my belief that to influence intricate scientific and social problems, we must work with people to make change. When thinking about my time here, I find that it’s hard to accurately translate the value of my SMEA education. How do we measure the value of connections, knowledge, and friendships? I don’t have an answer to that, but I know that my time at SMEA has been invaluable in furthering my understanding of marine systems and the people who rely on them.

As I reflect on the past the two years, what parts of this experience will we remember? What parts of this program will stick with graduates in 5, 10, 20 years? Some course material will fade while friendships will remain. We will remember the person we called when we were having our third breakdown during the thesis, capstone, or class project. We will remember the importance of frameworks, and we will remember the time we took to get out of Seattle and focus on why we came to grad school in the first place. I could write at length about my favorite courses and how valuable Public Land Law is alongside SMEA courses, but that would be another piece entirely. Instead, I hope we remember the bigger lessons from this program. That yes, good science is important, but so is engaging with communities and in the policy process.

I’ve also asked myself as I think back on my time here, what do I regret? I don’t regret working service industry jobs or TAing to pay for school. I don’t regret coming in to SMEA on a weekend to finish a project or eating the same food for everyday for a week. I do regret not making time to get more beers with my class. I’ve learned as much from my peers as I have from my professors. I will be forever grateful for the friends I made during this program and can’t wait to see how our paths continue to intersect as we build careers in this field. I have the sneaking suspicion that my classmates will prove to be the most value asset from my masters education.

Many of us came here with dreams of ocean conservation, and some of those got shattered (which is probably a good thing) and then we focused on practical ways to steward our marine resources. We wrote on diverse topics, from salmon to California beaches to seafood sustainability to international fishing issues. This is the stuff that gives me hope. Knowing that my SMEA class is going to be working in this field gives me hope. Hope that good people are going out into the world who are smart and more importantly, who care.

The past two years have been transformative, for both me and my peers. We were only months into this program when the election happened. The current administration isn’t exactly good news for our field of work, as many jobs in the environmental sector were and are being cut. Despite the rapidly changing job market, professors like Nives Dolsak took an entire class to talk about the changes for our careers and opportunities in the private sector. Ryan Kelly brought in government scientists so we could hear about what it’s like to work in an administration that doesn’t believe in climate change. In a strange way, this event united us and gave our class something to stand to stand up for – science. Together, we marched for science, had discussions in and out of the classroom about how political change impacts the areas we work in, and we became active, which I don’t know if any of us expected coming in to this program. Thanks to my experiences at SMEA, my ability to ask critical questions and analyze both scientific and policy-related issues has grown significantly.

For some of us, our paths after grad school remain uncertain. Despite this uncertainty, I do know that we will work in science and policy at the local and federal levels. We will engage with stakeholders, use the best available science, build coalitions around marine issues, educate, inspire, and inform our communities. Personally, my goal is to build a career at the intersection of science, policy, and people. This summer, I am interning with the Ruckelshaus Center to learn about collaborative public policy. Next year, I will be heading to Washington D.C. with the Knauss Fellowship to work on marine policy at the federal level. This is new territory for me, and I’m going places I couldn’t have gone without SMEA. I don’t know what I’ll be doing after that, but I do know that is the start of my career in marine policy. This career demands building the knowledge, relationships, and skills to innovate collaborative solutions to the pressing human and ecosystem challenges facing our oceans. In tackling these issues, I may feel challenged, but because of this program, I am never alone. Thank you, SMEA, for the friends, knowledge, and support to go out into the world to work on these wicked problems.