Graduates share how their time at GPS shaped their careers in climate and sustainability
At the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS), our degree programs are perfectly situated at the intersection of research and real-world policy.
And with climate change still standing as one of the world’s biggest policy challenges, many students pursue careers in climate and sustainability as we move toward a greener world.
GPS News caught up with four alumni who all work in climate and sustainability to explore the variety of careers you can pursue with the training the school offers.
Nicola Hedge ’08 is the deputy director in the Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency for the city and county of Honolulu, Hawaii.
Hedge, who hails from Auckland, New Zealand, said she found GPS because she “was looking for an international development program that was rigorous and inspiring.”
“GPS — or IR/PS as it was known at the time — was definitely a standout,” Hedge said. “It was a fantastic fit for me since I’d grown up around the Pacific Rim.”
And at GPS, Hedge gained the skills needed to pursue a career in public service, though she wasn’t sure when she started her degree program what her specific path would be.
“It wasn’t until I got a fellowship opportunity at the San Diego Foundation while at GPS that I got exposed to local climate action, and I never looked back,” Hedge said.
After earning her master’s at GPS with a focus in international development and nonprofit management, Hedge focused her career on sustainability — a rewarding career path impacting a number of sectors, from energy to affordability, housing, transportation, health, food and protection of natural resources.
“I really do leverage a lot of the skills, courses and experiences I honed at GPS frequently — whether policy making processes, economics and finance, survey design, data analysis, or communications,” Hedge said. “Bureaucracy and outdated systems are definitely the most challenging aspect of my current job in local government, but it’s also exciting when we can innovate to make the systems better.”
The network Hedge built through watching her friends and peers at GPS build their careers has been incredibly valuable, not to mention filled with lifelong friends. Hedge mentioned that professors like Craig McIntosh made a lasting impact on her, and the GPS staff always made her feel welcome and were there to support her career development long after she graduated.
Hedge encouraged all students looking to enter the sustainability field to be proactive and open to unexpected opportunities when it comes to the job search.
“The field is changing and growing so fast that it’s not as hard as you may think to find a niche you can develop expertise in,” Hedge said. “But also be patient — your first (or second or third!) job may not have all you are looking for, but each step in your career will offer a lot of learning.”
And don’t get too hung up on the day-to-day tasks of a job when you’re applying, either, Hedge said.
“I am so lucky to have worked for some great people over the years (you know who you are!) that pushed me, inspired me and gave me space and support to succeed, fail and grow,” she added. “Remember when you’re interviewing somewhere that the people you will work for and with can be just as or more important than your precise job duties.”
Jason Riley ’08 was working in the California State Legislature when he decided that his path was leading him toward international politics.
“I researched and visited many of the professional schools of international affairs on the East Coast,” Riley said. “Ultimately, I was drawn to GPS’s focus on the Pacific Rim, its excellent reputation, and its friendly, student-oriented faculty and staff.”
Both professors and fellow students alike shaped Riley’s thinking in the international politics sphere.
“Barbara Walter had a huge impact on my process for thinking and writing about international politics, and Stephan Haggard’s classes really inspired my ongoing interest in the politics of Asia,” Riley said. “And my classmate Paul Schuler, now a professor at the University of Arizona, influenced and encouraged my interest in Vietnam.”
Since 2009, Riley has worked for the U.S. Department of the Interior’s (DOI) Office of International Affairs.
“I wasn’t sure that climate and sustainability would be the focus of my career,” Riley said. “However, I found myself drawn to projects with a conservation link in my pre-GPS jobs. When I graduated, a GPS alumnus at the National Park Service offered me a position and told me I would be a great fit for the culture and values of the Department of the Interior. He was right!”
Riley now serves as the team lead for Asia, Pacific Islands, and the Arctic in DOI’s International Technical Assistance Program, where his team provides training and scientific exchange on natural resources and environmental issues to government agencies in partner countries.
“We are working to help governments in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from land use and forest management,” Riley said. “For example, we work with the Philippines to strengthen environmental laws and law enforcement and with Indonesia to conserve biodiversity and restore peatlands and mangroves. We also empower the governments of Thailand and Vietnam to better combat wildlife trafficking.”
Despite the challenges Riley faces in his job — such as corruption, lack of political will and intense economic incentives to exploit natural resources — he said working alongside park rangers and scientists from overseas really inspires his team to do what they do.
“The long-term impact of reducing climate change and saving endangered species can seem far off, but witnessing our peers from around the world working with limited resources and limited political support to make a difference is immediately rewarding,” Riley said. “We come away with great friendships, too.”
Riley carried over a great deal of his training at GPS into his career and directly attributes the curriculum to strengthening his work as a project manager.
“I am no spreadsheet whiz, but the skills I picked up in finance and accounting let me stand out in budget management and analysis from the beginning,” Riley said. “The type of short, analytical writing common at GPS translates well into memos, work plans and other technical written products common in government. However, the most important thing I gained at GPS was the network of like-minded professionals. That has proved invaluable.”
For those interested in government service in international conservation or international affairs, Riley said students would do well to expand their job and internship searches to include agencies other than the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
“Almost every federal agency has international interests and partnerships, and they often provide fantastic opportunities for interesting work and professional advancement,” Riley added.
In the early 2000s, Colin Santulli ’11 was in the Coast Guard, working on a variety of environmental protection and law enforcement missions, when he became interested in climate change.
“My initial interest in this field started with my concern over the tremendous amount of oil Americans consume,” Santulli said. “I knew I wanted to stay in public service and focus on a career that could have local impact but appreciated the global challenge of the climate crisis. GPS, with its focus on international environmental policy, was the perfect fit.”
And the experience for Santulli was transformational, particularly in learning how to communicate complex topics in a concise way and how to use statistical analysis in research or in everyday professional life.
“I haven’t touched Stata since I graduated, but I can still read an academic paper with a regression analysis and understand the results,” Santulli said.
Two professors in particular stand out to Santulli as having a huge impact on his professional life.
“Professor Barbara Walter has a way of engaging students and motivating them to put forward the best work possible. She taught me how to write policy briefs, and I use that skill to this day in my work,” Santulli said. “And professor Craig McIntosh made statistical theory actually fun — no easy task! His quantitative methods classes changed the way I looked at problems and the potential solutions.”
Santulli now works as the Director of Customer Energy Programs for San Diego Community Power, the region’s community choice energy provider. San Diego Community Power purchases electricity for the majority of the San Diego region, providing cleaner power at a lower cost than San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E), Santulli noted.
“As director, I lead the team that designs and implements programs to help San Diegans embrace renewable technologies, with a focus on populations who have been historically underrepresented in the clean energy transition,” Santulli explained. “I love working with a dedicated team who cares deeply about our community and the planet, while bringing clean energy at affordable rates to San Diegans.”
It is impossible to consider solutions to the climate crisis without also considering climate justice, whether globally or locally, Santulli added.
“I’d encourage every student who is considering a career in climate or sustainability to go educate themselves on the impact that institutional racism has had on society,” Santulli said.
And policy issues as complex as the climate crisis cannot be solved in a vacuum.
“Climate change is the challenge of our generation, and we need as many smart minds as possible to take it on,” Santulli said. “I can’t imagine working in any other industry.”
Qiuyi Wang ’20 chose to attend the school to earn a Master of International Affairs degree thanks to the recommendation of other GPS alumni and to improve her skills in quantitative analysis. But her interest in sustainability dated back to her first internship in undergrad, when she worked at an international nonprofit.
“That internship made me realize that sustainability is a broad and inclusive issue that can engage diverse stakeholders and has a greater potential to influence policymaking, bringing about change in society,” Wang said.
Wang credits courses she took on environment and energy — as well as the practical quantitative skills learned, like Excel, Stata and data visualization — for giving her a solid foundation for working in sustainability. In a class with professor David Victor, she and other group members completed a project on the energy storage market in China.
“This capstone project gave me a deeper understanding of the energy situation in China, especially some of the dilemmas in China’s energy transition process, which played a key role in my job interview,” Wang said.
Wang now works in Beijing as an analyst for Clean Air Asia, a nonprofit organization focused on improving the air quality in Asia. Her daily work includes tracking China’s air quality and energy policies and writing analytical articles about them, as well as participating in multiple projects related to energy transition in China and working with colleagues to write annual reports related to air quality and energy in China.
“The biggest challenge is to keep track of the fast-evolving policies and keep writing high-quality analytical articles, while at the same time promoting other projects,” Wang said. “China’s ‘dual carbon’ policy has become a hot topic, which means we cannot limit our focus to air pollutants. Instead, we need to find the link between carbon and pollution reduction and identify more opportunities in energy, industry, transportation and other areas.”