Undergraduate makes the most of opportunities at UCSC

Katie Roper graduated in December with a B.A. in environmental studies and economics. Photo by Jim MacKenzie.

Overcoming obstacles and pursuing her dreams are two of the life skills Katie Roper says she acquired at UCSC, where several professors encouraged her to take a hands-on approach to her education.

Roper had always wanted to work in Africa, and with the support of faculty mentors, she arranged two separate internships in Kenya, where she produced documentary films about environmental sustainability.

"What I learned from (sociology professor) Paul Lubeck and my other professors is to seek out opportunities," said Roper, who graduated in December with a B.A. in environmental studies and economics. "Paul was always asking us, 'What do you want to do? Who do you want to work with?' It's networking, basically."

The result was Roper's especially rich undergraduate experience, highlighted by her internships in Kenya, a year spent living in a "sustainable community" on campus, and an academic program that integrated environmental studies and economics. Along the way, Roper produced two video documentaries about Kenyan forestry practices that showcase her grasp of the tensions between "haves" and "have nots"--and helped her land a job right out of college with award-winning documentary filmmaker Alicia Dwyer.

"Katie is someone who tapped the best of UCSC," said sociology professor Paul Lubeck. "She took advantage of everything the campus has to offer."

Roper met Lubeck during her first quarter on campus, when he was teaching World Society, a survey course that covered feudalism, mercantilism, capitalism, and globalism. That's when she learned about the Global Information Internship Program (GIIP), a three-quarter, student-directed class Lubeck has developed to combine practical training in information technology with sociological theories about globalization, networking, and social change. Students gain technical skills that prepare them for internships around the world with nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations that need assistance harnessing the power of the Internet. "It's about sharing the democratizing power of new technology," says Lubeck.

Roper enrolled in the class and quickly acquired videography skills that made her the envy of friends majoring in film. "They couldn't believe what we were doing, because they hadn't even touched a camera yet," recalls Roper, who like many students, had no particular affinity for computers or technology before enrolling in GIIP (pronounced "jeep").

"GIIP is all about how to use technology in empowering ways, and it's empowering for the students in the class," adds Roper, who attended high school in San Luis Obispo and chose UCSC in part because she was eager for opportunities to interact closely with professors. "Students are encouraged to bring their own resources to the class."

At Lubeck's urging, she met with an economist working in Kenya during a visit to UCSC. As a result, she spent the summer of 2005 as an intern with Sustainable Aid in Africa (SANA), a small nongovernmental organization focused on water provision. She returned to Kenya the following year as an intern with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), where she single-handedly produced a six-minute video documentary called Thirsty Trees: And the Search for Better Alternatives (http://giip.ucsc.edu/content/view/104/37/).

In a country where cycles of drought and monsoon dictate treks of up to six hours to fetch water during the dry season, SANA's work developing wells and roof catchment systems is critical. Roper developed a web site for the organization, prepared brochures, Powerpoint presentations, and other outreach materials, and provided technical training to SANA staffers so they could continue her work after her departure. The video she produced for ICRAF calls attention to the emerging problem of nonnative eucalyptus trees. The fast-growing evergreens have been introduced to address Kenya's fuel shortage, but mature trees consume an average of 200 liters of precious water a day. The film was screened during World Water Week in Stockholm and has been shown to members of Kenya's Parliament.

Roper's success required overcoming numerous cultural and logistical challenges: She negotiated budgets, worked with forestry scientists, overcame language problems, and chose to extend her stay in Kenya to produce a second documentary about a promising alternative source of firewood, charcoal, and building materials: indigenous bamboo. That film was screened--and well-received--during a United Nations-sponsored side event to the Nairobi meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The internships gave Roper the opportunity to apply many of the skills she'd learned as a GIIP fellow. "I gained confidence and understood how to ask for things," she recalls. "I became assertive about what I wanted to do. GIIP provides very practical training. The emphasis is on problem solving and troubleshooting. It's a confidence-booster."

After her first trip to Kenya, Roper returned to UCSC and joined the Program in Community and Agroecology (PICA), an experiential living and learning program that focuses on the environment and sustainable food production. Students live in dedicated housing in The Village, adjacent to the UCSC Farm on lower campus, where they have created an "eco" community, growing, harvesting, and cooking as much of their own food as possible. "After Kenya, I really wanted to live sustainably and tread lightly," says Roper. "PICA is like a little intentional community. We strived to work together, to solve problems together, to really understand each other and get along--life skills, basically."

The brainchild of environmental studies professor Stephen Gliessman, PICA satisfied Roper's desire to interact closely with like-minded students who share her commitment to the environment and social justice. Academically, she chose a double major in environmental studies and economics--an increasingly popular combination--to broaden her toolset, inspired in part by environmental studies professor Alan Richards, whose background is in economics. "Environmental studies is where my heart is, but I see economics as a way of communicating," she explains. "Economics is challenging, because it's not the way I think about things, but it's like my second pair of glasses. I see economics as the mediation point."

Roper worked her way through school, most recently as a policy assistant for the Organic Farming Research Foundation, and says she is ready now for the next phase of her life. "I feel really prepared to go out in the world," says Roper, who will start her job as a production assistant for filmmaker Alicia Dwyer in February. "I've learned how important it is to really ask for what you want--to negotiate for what you want. That has really empowered me. I feel really, really thankful."