More and more students are pursuing the environmental sciences. According to a Keystone Student Recruitment Survey, Environmental Science majors have increased in enrollment by 24 percent since 2016. Students pursuing environmental careers is following the same pattern, having increased by six percent in 2021 alone. Additionally, the average age of workers in environmental fields is declining, indicating that many young people are entering into these careers soon upon entering the workforce. Young people have highlighted a desire for action on climate change in polls, possibly motivating many students to pursue environmental careers.
The Princeton community is no exception to this trend of increased interest in environmental work. Toward the end of the last academic year, Princeton faculty approved the addition of eight new minors to its undergraduate offerings, including an Environmental Studies minor converted from the Environmental Studies Certificate and a new Climate Science minor. Yet Princeton remains the only Ivy League university that does not offer a major in either Environmental Studies or Sciences.
With the absence of a major at Princeton, it is difficult to precisely measure the trends of Princetonians’ interest in studying the environment or entering environmental careers. Although Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) is on the rise in the Class of 2024, it is unclear how many students in the humanities, natural, and social sciences are focusing on climate.
The Daily Princetonian spoke to various professors, students, and alums to understand the challenges students face in the absence of a major and the opportunities that exist for them to pursue environmental work at Princeton and beyond.
Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) and Director of the Program in Environmental Studies Corina Tarnita reflected on the opportunities Princeton offers for environmental involvement and shared her perspective on what has made the certificate approach so successful.
Tarnita explained that the overarching goal is "to have enough accessibility and potential for renewal, always bringing new people into the fold.” By being organized as a certificate and henceforth as a minor, ENV has been able to complement other departments rather than compete in them.
"Being able to be seen as a hotspot of interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary interactions without people feeling like they specifically have to be in a school for the environment helps every student feel like a stakeholder in that conversation," said Tarnita.
“Everyone can join, and we can foster novel interactions that might not have existed five years ago without this creative design,” said Tarnita, adding, “I think that so far, it has worked magnificently.”
Indeed, many students and alumni have successfully made addressing climate change the focal point of their studies and careers after college. In 2020, the Princeton High Meadows Environmental Institute (HMEI) collected data from a pool of over 3000 alumni which included former undergraduates of the Environmental Certificate Program, the HMEI internship program, and students who received support from HMEI for senior thesis research. The researchers found that 45 percent of those surveyed were doing some form of environmental work in their post-college life. This work spanned a wide range of foci, the most popular of which were jobs in industry, academia, NGOs, and government.
This broad array of post-college careers is reflected in the way current Princeton students are interweaving the new Environmental Studies minor with their other areas of study, exploring the climate through the lens of their major and vice versa. Aaron Serianni ’25, a Mathematics major pursuing the Environmental Studies minor, has taken many Environmental Studies courses over his time at Princeton. Serianni appreciates the flexibility that the Environmental Studies minor provides for students, explaining, “I think environmental studies by nature is very interdisciplinary, and there are many different approaches you could take … I enjoy the way the minor is set up to allow students to take these different approaches.”
However, Serianni believes that Princeton could be doing a better job outside of academics to encourage people to think about environmental justice. For example, Serianni suggested that the University promote more diverse internships and jobs in environmental studies, as many of the current internship offerings are narrow in their focus on mainly science and engineering. “There are other programs that have features like SPIA’s hub in Washington and very strong alumni and job market presences,” noted Serianni, “but Princeton has not built that for Environmental Studies.”
Md Abid Sikder ’24, a Computer Science BSE major, is trying to help students navigate their way into environmental careers at Princeton, specifically jobs in climate tech. Sikder and a friend created a club called College to Climate because they wanted to inform other students about the type of climate career in which they were interested. The club hears from speakers who guide students in navigating the world of startups and climate tech. Sikder hopes that the University Center for Career Development will also help make students aware of these careers in the future and emphasized that “there are many different ways of getting these jobs and joining these communities than the big company pipelines you might usually see.”
Students in the humanities are also doing interdisciplinary environmental work at Princeton and beyond. Michael Salama ’24, for example, is pursuing an Environmental Studies minor and centering the environment in his senior thesis work in the History department. Salama uses his passion for history to explore current environmental issues.
“I’ve visited some countries and learned what can be done on the ground, and who needs to be helped right now. My projects are centered around the hyperlocal, but are then bridged through history to global issues,” Salama explained, adding “I think it’s super valuable to take a history class that’s not at all about the environment and then make those connections by yourself.”
In addition to his academic work, Salama serves as the President of the Princeton Conservation Society, which works within Princeton and the wider New Jersey area to address environmental issues. Last year, Salama organized a Youth Climate and Conservation Summit which brought together young people already engaged in climate work and, later this year, members of the society will be traveling to Panama to participate in a reforestation project and grassroots organizing.
These opportunities for on-campus involvement in student-led environmental activism and conservation efforts, as well as classes and internships through the High Meadows Environmental Institute (HMEI), help prepare Princetonians for post-college work in environmental careers. Michael Salama’s older brother, Jordan Salama ’19, graduated Princeton with a major in Spanish and Portuguese. Since then, he has found his way into writing and freelance environmental journalism. Jordan Salama developed his first book, "Every Day the River Changes: Four Weeks Down the Magdalena," out of his Princeton senior thesis, and the book was later chosen as Princeton’s Pre-read for the Class of 2026.
Like his brother, Jordan Salama carved an environmental pathway for himself within his non-environmental major at Princeton, but he believes that Princeton would be better off with an Environmental Studies major. “I think it’s important to have the [Environmental Studies] major because it’s such an important issue for so many people in our generation, and there are increasingly more people who want to seriously address the climate crisis,” Salama said.
Salama advised current students not to underestimate the work they do while they’re in school, noting that much of the work one does as a Princeton undergraduate can be adapted into longer articles, essays, and even books. “Don’t think you’re just doing your Princeton work because you have to, and then it’ll be over. Ask yourself: what work am I doing in class that could be interesting for the world?” Jordan Salama suggested.
Like Jordan Salama, Kate Gammon ’03 decided to focus on environmental writing after graduating Princeton, where she studied Anthropology and got the Environmental Studies certificate. Gammon focuses her writing on the environment and climate because, “I really think that climate is the story of our generation.” She added, “That definitely goes back to the training I had at Princeton.”
Gammon’s path towards environmental writing was not a linear one. She explained, “It took a while for environmental themes to come into my writing life in the same way it was in my environmental life, but now environmentalism is one of the biggest parts of my journalism career.”
Gammon advised students who are currently struggling to merge their environmental and academic interests to “be brave and not be limited by the jobs that exist today.” She also urged students to take advantage of the interdisciplinary nature of environmental studies, “because you’re going to need all of that toolkit to go out there and tackle what’s facing us.”
Debbie Weyl ’06 took her environmental interests in a different direction, focusing on energy and policy. At Princeton, Weyl majored in Politics with a focus in International Relations and a certificate in Political Economy, but for the most part she did not engage in environmentalism as a Princeton undergraduate. Instead, Weyl found her way into climate work during graduate school at the London School of Economics, where she completed a master’s program in Environmental Policy and International Development. Now, Weyl works as the Deputy Director of U.S. work at the World Resources Institute, where she considers how low income families can gain access to renewable energy and deals with issues of land use, agriculture, and biofuels.
Although Weyl does not trace her interest in climate work back to her time at Princeton, she noted that “Princeton set me up really well for picking up new information and new content,” which she explained was very helpful in the constantly changing field of environmental energy.
Weyl recommended that current students interested in pursuing environmental careers reach out to alumni and try out many different options within the vast field of climate work before settling on one area.
“Even though there isn’t an Environmental Studies major,” said Weyl, “there are definitely professors who are working on these issues full time.”
Raphaela Gold is a staff Features writer at the ‘Prince.’
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