Hannah Debelius—Sustainability Outreach and Communications Manager at American University—has always loved the environment.
“As a kid, I was always dirty from climbing around in tree forts and making mud pies,” Debelius says. But she didn’t know she could turn her passion for the outdoors into a career until she took an introductory environmental studies class in college.
“From then on, I’ve always been certain that sustainability is the right fit for me,” she explains.
Right after college, Debelius took an eight-month agricultural internship on a sustainable farm in rural Virginia, where she received training in sustainable farming practices and learned how to market produce throughout the harvest season. After this, she became an environmental educator at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
“I coordinated with school staff and teachers to plan and lead three-day outdoor education experiences. I lived and worked first in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, then on Smith Island, which is a remote island in the Chesapeake Bay. It’s only accessible by boat!” explains Debelius. After a year, she decided it was time to return to the “mainland” of Washington, DC.
So, she got an internship (that eventually turned into a full-time job) with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which is the green building and design nonprofit responsible for the LEED rating system. And now, in her job at AU, she manages communication and events (like a food justice panel) for her department, the Office of Sustainability, and about eight peer educators.
“It sounds corny,” she says, “but my favorite job has always been the one I’m doing. I loved learning how to farm, but my ‘desk jobs’ have always been just as adventurous. And in my current role, I have the opportunity to see real, tangible change in a community. I feel like I’ve finally started to hit my stride as a young professional, and it’s fun to feel more confident.”
Read on to learn more about what it’s like to work in the field of sustainability.
What’s the Most Challenging Aspect of Working in This Field?
Unsurprisingly, it’s climate change. We’re encountering perhaps the greatest challenge to ever face humanity. It’s hard to know where to start.
Climate change manifests itself through issues of equity, public health, species extinction, water crises, and more. So, mitigating the impacts won’t come from just one place, but through millions of local and global solutions. This is simultaneously uplifting and pretty overwhelming.
But what keeps me grounded is maintaining perspective on the interrelatedness of the solutions. For example, composting on our campus means less waste is going to landfills. That means less methane gas (which can warm the atmosphere in a detrimental way) is released and the compost itself can contribute to a local business and farms.
What Advice Do You Have for Someone Who Wants to Be in Your Field?
Sustainability is such a broad field that people either become an expert in one specific area (such as energy, waste, or water), or serve as a generalist, where you have to know a little bit about everything.
Many jobs in corporate sustainability or marketing and communications may be generalist roles, whereas a renewable energy consulting or green landscaping career will require niche expertise. Knowing which path you prefer earlier on can help you better develop the knowledge and skills necessary for your success.
What Are Some Ways People Can Be More “Green” in Their Offices?
First, try to change something in your sphere of influence. Is there a process you’re in charge of that can go paperless? Do you do the purchasing for your office and can switch to more sustainable supplies?
“Reduce” is the first R in “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” for a reason. Cut down on printing, share office supplies, and use reusable dishware so you can decrease the amount of disposables.
Also, always turn off the lights! You may think flipping one switch off won’t have a big effect, but if everyone, everywhere, can remember to do it, the impact will be huge not just in energy, but in creating a culture of sustainability.