How It All Began: MDP students tell how they first became interested in international sustainable development

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We asked our MDP students to tell their stories of how they first became interested in international sustainable development. As you will see each of their stories are incredible.

Amanda Brinton

I believe my interest in international development began from the adventurous tales I was told as a child of my father’s, grandparents’, and great-grandparents’ adventures in the Democratic Republic of Congo formally Zaire. My great-grandparents were some of the first missionaries that went to the DRC in 1916 and brought my six-month-old grandfather with them. Therefore, both my great-grandparents and grandparents spent the majority of their lives living there and my dad lived there until he was 14 when the country’s independence started and the country became more unstable, forcing my family back to the U.S.. As a child it seemed all very romantic, tales of meetings with chiefs and ant hills appearing overnight in your school house along with the occasional lion chase, as in the lion chasing my family.

However, at the time of hearing these stories I wasn’t comprehending the actual work that was taking place in community capacity building with the assistance of my family such as constructing schools and hospitals and helping build tribal relations among warring groups. I look back now and think “why didn’t I talk with by grandparents more about the actual work within development that they were doing.” It’s interesting now how this has worked due to my sister also now working in international development in Eastern Africa so it appears these tales really did influence our adult decisions of profession. It wasn’t until highschool that I began learning about the UN Environmental Program and started considering options in development with an environmental focus. Then during my first year of college in 2005, I learned about Ecotourism and that was it, I was sold. I knew for certain at that point moving forward that I wanted to work with communities in developing countries but focus on protecting the environment simultaneously. Though now my focus has shifted to solid waste management in developing countries specifically in Latin America and the Caribbean, I think a part of me still holds on to that sense of adventure and romance of the stories that will come to pass.


Rosanna Kingston

After working many years in projects that involved in-kind donations, I realized that I wanted to broaden my skills and work with projects that went beyond short term temporary fixes. I wanted to better understand and be able to contribute to projects that had more long term sustainable positive impact.

I especially wanted to work with mothers, children, and emerging young adults.  I’d had some success with several projects I’d done, but I didn’t feel like they were making a lasting difference.  I had been working up more lofty ideas for years, but they were beyond the scope of the organization I worked for.  I wanted to be in a position where I could try to implement and organize strategies that would lead to a more lasting change.

I understood some issues quite well (especially those in my area), but I could see big holes in what I knew.  I did some job interviews that made me also realize that I didn’t understand some of the language that others working in this field were using.  There were skills like conducting focus groups or doing statistical studies that were completely beyond me.

I love this field and felt that if I pursue a graduate degree in sustainable development, it would increase my knowledge and enhance my career opportunities.


Pilar Morales Giner

I became generally interested in sustainability and the environment when I worked as an intern for the Nature Protection Service (SEPRONA) in Spain, where I learned about some neglected problems related with pollution in my home city and the public initiatives to combat environmental crimes. Additionally, I have always been motivated in learning more about human rights and social justice while completing my degrees. When I participated in exchange educational programs, I realized that communicating and cooperating with people from other cultures to achieve understanding was easier than I thought.

More specifically related to the topic of my field practicum, I first became interested in migration when I had the opportunity to attend meetings with immigrants in my hometown (coordinated by a local NGO). These meetings were something of a shock to me, as they marked the first time that I was made aware of both the opportunities and the struggles that immigrant communities in Europe go through.


Tania Bautista

I became interested in Sustainable Development when I started to pursue new ways to benefit local communities and the rainforest in Peru. My experience with conservation started since I was in the university studying my undergraduate degree in ecotourism. I did a lot of volunteerism with local environmental education organizations and conservation organizations. Despite the great contributions these organizations made to conserve the rainforest, I started to experience the conflict between local communities, development, and conservation.

My desire to understand and support initiatives that can help to reconcile these conflicts was my main motivation to start working on projects with Sustainable Development components. I had the opportunity to participate in community conservation projects and REDD+ initiatives with recognized conservation organizations like World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and local organizations like the regional government in my region. I also worked on projects focusing on the effects of climate change on farmers, deforestation, and labor dynamics of gold mining and ecotourism. Nonetheless, I learned from these experiences that the definition and applicability of sustainable development is in constant improvement based on evidence in the field and practice and this is why I decided to start a Master of Sustainable Development Practice (MDP).

I expect that through grad school and my own experience applying a sustainable approach to conservation initiatives with local communities will give me more clarity regarding the potential uses and benefits of Sustainable Development as a conceptual framework.


Iliana Jaimes

Since I was in high school I have been interested in environmental problems, which were becoming more and more recognized and mentioned in my school or in the news. I was very moved by the fact that man as a specie was destroying the natural world where he lives, and on which he depends.

Therefore, I chose to enroll in Environmental Engineering for my undergraduate studies, since it is a profession that seeks the protection of the environment and human health through the application of scientific and engineering principles.

During several years of practicing this profession, I had the opportunity to work in different companies and in different fields; Environmental engineering (analysis of contaminants in water, soil and air), environmental consulting company (elaboration of monitoring, environmental impact studies and environmental management plans), engineering companies (planning and construction of engineering projects), Oil companies (Environmental audit of wells) and civil construction companies (interventory in the construction of water treatment plants).

Throughout this work experience, I realized that environmental protection not only depends on existing technologies for this purpose, but it is also influenced by other aspects. Mainly the economic factor since conserving or recovering the environment is usually costly and unproductive. On the other hand, society also influences, since certain customs inherent in our cultures and the lack of environmental education, makes people  unaware of existing and future environmental problems, neither know which tools to use day to day to contribute to the change needed in this respect.

Since I was in college, the Sustainable Development concept was mentioned several times in some of the classes, but it was more with the work experience that I realized the importance of being able to achieve an appropriate balance between economic growth, social welfare, and environmental protection.

This Master’s of Sustainable Development Practice program at UF has given me a much broader vision than I had about sustainable development, and I hope to continue learning about it, but always focusing on working on green projects; those which generate an additional economic value, well-being in the community, and, above all, that protect and improve the environment quality.

Thanks to the agreement between UF-MDP and COLFUTURO, I had the opportunity to come and learn about this exciting and interesting area of study with a wide perspective of the world…

Grace Palacios

When I decided to do my undergrad in Sustainable Tourism, it was because I truly thought It was an amazing proposal to develop tourism in rural areas in order to generate sustainable development and enhance livelihood opportunities through tourism. Once on the road, I realized that many locations in my country had a myriad of complicated and deep-rooted problems that needed to be considered and addressed before implementing any kind of tourism proposal. A tourism proposal was basically “the cherry on the top” after extensive work concerning the core development focus (water and sanitation, infrastructure, markets, government and policy, ecosystem conservation, local products, social well-being, cultural identity women empowerment, education, stakeholder transparency and capacity building, among others). A tourism proposal couldn’t address all of these, it was urgent to have previous projects to enhance the situation in these locations. Thus, I decided to earn a master degree in Sustainable Development.

Through my working experience in Peru, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in different development projects in rural areas. I’ve been involved in solid waste management assessments, regional conservation area creation, reforestation programs, strengthening cultural identities and sustainable tourism assessments. These experiences have consistently confirmed the immediate need I have to be specialized and trained in sustainable development. Also, through these jobs I mentioned, I noticed how it was harder for me to access the position without a development specialization.

Derek Sindler

It all started in 8th grade.  History class.  The teacher, Mrs. Townsend, showed a video of wasting children to show us what extreme poverty looks like, and that it exists in the world today.  I was shocked.  Appalled.  Confused.  The shock and appall eventually subsided, but the confusion stuck.  It was confusing that the greatest challenge in my life at the time was convincing my parents to buy me certain brands of sneakers; while there were people elsewhere that were literally starving.  Even the poorer classmates of mine, who were in families that lived paycheck-to-paycheck in subsidized housing, weren’t starving.  It was like a crooked painting on the wall- something is just not right with this picture.

From that seed of realization of injustice has grown an MDP inscription.  Along the way, there have been different stages of growth.  From my initial urges to round up charity and send it overseas, I changed to thinking that people should be able to support themselves by themselves.  I went to a mock U.N. conference in between my junior and senior years of high school.  Economic development began to be my mantra.  Life got in the way though, and I didn’t satisfy the itch to launch a career in international economic development.  Instead, I stumbled into the moment where I was looking at the UF Graduate Catalogue for programs and I found MDP.  Vwallah.  Now, I have come to realize the beautiful side of the s-word (sustainability), in that balance and a holistic mindset are the keys to unlock justice.

With my concentration of sustainable food systems, I hope that my budding development career will someday bear fruit that feeds some people.


Maria Fontecha

When I was studying journalism in Colombia, I wanted to be like Superman… a reporter that saves the world and helps the people. I wanted to cover conflict and write stories from foreign countries like Ryszard Kapuściński or Orianna Fallaci. However, life had something different for me. I was 22 when Semana, the most prestigious magazine in Colombia, hired me to collaborate in the creation of the first sustainable news platform. At the beginning, it was just a job for me, and I wanted to be part of the magazine and have some experience. I helped to cover some environmental reports and write about poverty and gender. I must confess that I was never interested in that in a while I studied in the university.  Nonetheless, I had the privilege to interview and meet different people that dreamed of a better world. They had diverse backgrounds and ideas, yet they shared the “saving the world” idea. I was inspired and recalled my motivation for studying journalism: helping people.

Being part of the team that created this platform changed my life. It showed me that giving the voice to the people and publish reliable, human information can make a difference. However, I realized that I didn’t know anything about sustainability; I took some courses and read books about it, but I was never fully satisfied.  After Semana Sostenible I had the opportunity to work in the Congress of Colombia as an advisor for a congresswoman in environmental and social issues.  I wrote the law that makes mandatory that companies and public building have appropriated lactation rooms. It is a small action to help worker mothers to feed their babies, but it has helped thousands of women in the country to make maternity less discriminatory.  Nevertheless, the best was yet to come.

I worked as communication coordinator in Fondo Acción and I had the opportunity to work with a fantastic team and some indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. Traveling outside urban areas in Colombia showed me how much my country needs equity and peace. It has the most beautiful forests, beaches, and ecosystems in the world. Also, it has cultural diversity in every corner of the territory. However, civil war and corruption have increased the poverty of the most vulnerable people in the las 50 years. Even though inspiration and hope came from the people. Communities taught me that a better future was possible and they believe better times will come with the peace negotiation.  They have the solutions to local issues, just need somebody that works with them as partners. I want to be part of the first peace generation, I want to be prepare and help them. That’s the reason behind my travel to the United States.

Rebecca Starkman

My interest in sustainable development grew from my joy of traveling and my upbringing. I lived part of my life in Central and South America before moving to the U.S. and I was fortunate to experience both cultures and worlds growing up with Honduran and American parents. In later years as I traveled a little more, I became more interested in pursuing international development work. After spending some time working in finance, I began thinking more seriously about what kind of career I wanted and what I really wanted to do. During this search, I came across different development jobs related to environment, economics, etc. but I didn’t see connections between the different fields of work. That is what moved me towards sustainable development. I saw it as a combined field of study and opportunity to learn about development from more than one perspective. I also saw it as an opportunity to work with like-minded people, possibly from different backgrounds, who had similar interests in development.


Rachel Velez

My interest in international sustainable development evolved from my participation in my high school’s Center for International Studies (CIS) magnet program. It was here that I first immersed myself into East African studies, where we were introduced to a number of guest speakers from countries such as Uganda, Kenya, and (former) Sudan. I fell in love with the continent, specifically the culture of the Swahili Coast, and knew I would dedicate the rest of my academic career to African Studies. Luckily enough, not two hours north of my home in Orlando was the University of Florida’s Center for African Studies – one of the top-rated programs of its kind in the nation. Upon admission into college, I was fortunate enough to participate in a health intervention in Guatemala, where I finally understood what it meant to be a global citizen. Although I had visited many countries during my time in the CIS program, I never really understood what it meant to connect with a different culture – to work with them, live with them, cry with them, laugh with them. I would honestly have to say that trip solidified my desire to work in the development sector, and through the MDP program, I have been lucky enough to intersect my love of East Africa and international community-based development.


Sarah Ward

I first became interested in sustainable development when studying abroad and doing GIS work for a development organization in Ghana. I knew what concepts and subjects of expertise I was interested in but hadn’t yet been introduced to organizations that were effectively working on these issues until that time. I was most struck by the young children I always saw selling things in the streets early in the mornings and was always curious to know their stories. What were they interested in? What was their potential? I thought deeply on this daily and wondered if with more opportunity, one of those kids would be able to develop and share a solution to one of the world’s greatest issues. I began to exceedingly be interested in development projects and programs that would help children like those on the streets realize their human potential. Thus I have always been motivated by a Stephen Jay Gould quote, saying: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” This motivation is what then took me to Kibera, where I had the opportunity to work with some of the brightest young minds in Kenya and work with program officers who were working to give the youth of Kibera opportunities to help them further their reach in the world.


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