Remote internships allow sustainability students to broaden their skills while at home

Author: Natalie Ambrosio '17


In spring 2020, like many other students around the world, Notre Dame’s sustainability students were watching their summer internship plans fall through. When Dr. Rachel Novick, Director of Notre Dame’s Sustainability Minor reached out to alumni to see if they had any remote internships opportunities for these students she was met with great support. From a nonprofit focused on sustainable food systems to Knoxville’s sustainability office and a research center at Arizona State, there was a diverse set of new opportunities for sustainability students. For all of the students I spoke with, this was their first remote internship opportunity, and many stepped into fields that they were unfamiliar with. 

Erin Fitzgerald
Erin Fitzgerald ‘99, CEO of U.S. Farmers and Ranchers in Action

Erin Fitzgerald ‘99, CEO of U.S. Farmers and Ranchers in Action, the nonprofit working on food systems, explains that her four Notre Dame interns and two other volunteers were essential to the nonprofit’s success during this challenging time. She was delighted when Dr. Novick called in May to see if she could use any student interns. “As alumni, to get that call, saying can I help at a time when I needed that help, our farmers needed the help - meant the world,” Erin says. The Notre Dame students worked on partnership development, social media, briefing papers, and water research, really supporting all facets of the nonprofit’s work. Erin explains, “They just stepped in. We didn’t have time for training.” 

Despite this lack of training, the students found themselves learning a lot on the job at the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers in Action, about something they hadn’t realized they were so interested in. Robert Crawford, a third-year architecture student, explains how this internship helped him realize how the impacts of COVID-19 on the food system affect everyone and encouraged him to understand these connections. It was “invaluable at that point to understand why those things were happening across the whole food chain,” Robert says.

Kyle Walker
Kyle Walker, Environmental Science Senior

Kyle Walker, a senior Environmental Science major, shared this sentiment, explaining how his time researching and writing a report on sustainable agriculture opportunities helped him see the pandemic’s impacts “from the farmer and producer and processing side of things.” While Kyle grew up in an agricultural area in Missouri, he hadn’t considered the connection between environmental science and agriculture, until now. From leveraging technology and science to considering sustainability, he learned ways in which these topics are inextricably related.

Bridget Carmody, a senior majoring in Science-Business, found an internship opportunity that let her “get [her] feet wet with environmental policy,” which is directly connected to her goals for law school.  She worked with the City of Knoxville, where alumni Erin Gill ’09 is the Chief Policy Officer. In the Policy and Strategic Projects department Bridget focused on micro-mobility programs, particularly e-scooters. “It was awesome,” Bridget says. “A lot of unstructured work.” She researched best practices, using an equity and sustainability lens, to gain information from other cities and apply it to Knoxville with policy suggestions based on her advisor’s questions. Bridget explains that COVID-19 complicates the benefits of e-scooters which are sustainable due to their shared platform, built for multiple uses by different people. This highlights yet another way that the pandemic affects cities, which were also the research focus at Arizona State’s Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network and Long Term Ecological Research Center (URExSRN/CAP-LTER).

Stephen Elser
Stephen Elser Graduate Fellow, Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network, Arizona State University

Here Ph.D. candidate Stephen Elser ’14 works with these two National Science Foundation-funded research projects, both focused on understanding how cities can prepare for climate change. The URExSRN works with nine cities across the U.S. and Latin America, “with the goal of bringing together interdisciplinary scientists with local practitioners and stakeholders,” Stephen says. These workshops focus on co-designing preparedness for the climate hazards of the future, discussing goals, and potential policy actions. David DeBacker, a second-year architecture student, worked on organizing data from these scenario workshops.

David Debacker
David DeBacker, Second-Year Architecture Student

David entered over 21,000 ones and zeros when coding and sorting the data for nine cities this summer, including Miami, Baltimore, and Syracuse among others. While he was able to affirm that he prefers the creative elements of architecture to the data analysis, he enjoyed the collaboration and learning from a group of researchers. “I was really interested in resilience and also city planning but also during the internship it was expected of me to do independent research.” This allowed David to explore the connection between new urbanism, a focus of his studies in Notre Dame’s architecture program, and urban planning that’s occurring today. 

His experience with sorting data and crafting his research project helped David think about topics he studies regularly from a new angle. This was a consistent theme of these internships this summer. In fact, for Kyle, a key part of his internship was connecting with sustainability students from majors across the university and understanding the perspectives they bring.  While he hadn’t previously been very engaged with the sustainability minor, Kyle is now “trying to get involved more with the working groups and other things they’re doing on campus.” In a time where many are confronting feelings of isolation during months of social distancing, Notre Dame sustainability students and alumni were able to embrace an opportunity to build new connections