A Fast Track to Understanding Communities and the Environment

Students interested in how communities interact with their environment have a new opportunity to earn an undergraduate and master's degree in five years.

Nathan Queener of the Mattole Salmon Group explains river and salmon restoration to Environment & Community students at the Mattole Immersion field course.
The multidisciplinary Environment & Community M.A. in Social Science program at Humboldt State was developed in 2001. It generally has about a dozen students enroll each fall. It’s a multidisciplinary social science program that looks at interrelationships between environment and community, with a particular focus on sustainability and social justice.

Professors from all three of the HSU’s colleges participate in the program, giving it a broad multidisciplinary depth. Students come from a wide variety of undergraduate majors, ranging from anthropology to politics.

“The idea of the environment is all-encompassing — the so-called ‘natural’ as well as ‘built’ environment,” says Program Coordinator and Politics Professor Mark Baker. “Which is why we have people looking at graffiti in Mexico City and coffee fields in Jamaica. These are all different ways of looking at the environment.”

The curriculum consists of six graduate seminars from three dimensions: political and economic, environmental, and socio-cultural — with a focus on race, gender, class, and place.

“One thing that’s unique about the program is a strong focus on difference and social equality vis a vis the environment,” Baker says. “Environment-community relationships are power-laden. If we talk about sustainability and social justice, we have to talk about power.”

Baker says the programs hopes to entice more students with the appeal of world-changing work with two recent initiatives.

The first is a degree fast-track that gets students through their undergraduate major and the Environment & Community program in five years. The dual degree pathway shaves a year off the normal time to earn two degrees and gets students more quickly into the workforce, where the fruits of their studies can have real-life effects.

“It’s a matter of streamlining the process for getting an undergraduate and master’s degree in a shorter amount of time with carefully planned course of study,” Baker says. “They can start taking graduate seminars during their undergrad terms, and start working on their own thesis or project work.”

The requirements aren’t any different and the course load is the same. But it allows high-achieving and motivated students to seamlessly transition into the graduate program, reducing the stresses of grad school applications and tying their educational experience at Humboldt together.

Another relatively new aspect of the Environment & Community program is a weeklong immersion in the Mattole River watershed for incoming graduate students. The week-long course, which includes five days of camping, acquaints students with the historical, social, political, environmental, and cultural issues surrounding the Mattole, an important salmon waterway that winds through Humboldt County’s King Range.

Baker says the field-based course has been wildly successful, and quite popular with incoming graduate students. As one recent student said, “It was an amazing, energizing way to begin the school year. It gave something very concrete to reflect on and associate with Environment & Community themes.” Other feedback suggests the course gives students a sense of community and as well as a lens to understand how “environment and community” are interrelated.
Students discuss changing meadow ecology on the hills of the Mattole with a local rancher.

“With a focus on social justice and sustainability, the Environment & Community program has been a good fit for HSU from the beginning,” Baker says.

The program, he notes, resonates with the University’s values and focus on place-based learning.

The work of Environment & Community graduate students exemplifies these values and focus. “You can draw a link from almost every thesis or project students have done to an outcome, or how it has forwarded careers that let them become agents of change,” Baker says. The long list of graduate theses and projects include topics such as gender in the marijuana industry, graffiti and murals in Mexico City, a local Hmong community garden, and wolf depredation in Montana, to name just a few.

And Environment & Community graduates continue to do work that helps places, people, and the environment. Wendy Willis graduated to a dream job managing South American projects with the American Bird Conservancy after studying agroforestry systems and migratory birds on Jamaican coffee plantations.
Others have gone onto planning, direction, and coordination jobs in government, nonprofit agencies, private industry, and education. Program graduates are prepared for a wide variety of career trajectories. As program graduate Kerry Leslie notes, “The program challenged me to examine social and environmental issues from multiple angles, to see the nuances and intersections between these issues, and to identify the root of the problem, not just the symptoms. This heightened my critical thinking, which is a benefit for any type of work.”