Shining light on UNC-CH environmental dual degree program

By Lauren Westbrook

Annie McDarris found herself standing on top of a mountain in Montana, shivering from howling winds and wearing a red rain jacket.

She never imagined being in that moment in time. She carried a small, yellow “Rite in the Rain” all-weather journal in her right pocket to scrawl notes.

Her entry from June 21, 2016, describes the conditions following the Reynolds Creek Fire in Glacier National Park: “The landscape was exposed, a windswept meadow uphill of a creek. Thick, knee-deep foliage. Much colder than yesterday, it appeared to be snowing on the high peaks. The wind had picked up.”

McDarris said that day was illuminating, as she realized she was on the wrong career path. Though she loved environmental work, fieldwork was not her forte. She needed to find another way to make it into the field.

Taking the next step

Now, McDarris is a Media Relations Associate at Resources for the Future, an environmental, energy and natural resource non-profit organization. After a year at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she will be relocating to Washington D.C. to the non-profit’s headquarters.

Without her environmental studies and communication training at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, this position would not be a possibility for her, McDarris said. McDarris  also took part in the environmental communication program. Founded in 2015, this program allows students to get a dual degree in Environment and Science Communication by earning a Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies or Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science along with a Master of Arts in Media and Communication in five years.

The general public needs to know of the climate emergency in order to start making the changes that will shape the coming decades. Communicators that are able to educate about environmental issues are in high demand.

Climate communicators in short supply

Leaders for the next generation, from art to science, often graduate from UNC-CH. In a time when climate communicators are needed more than ever, UNC-CH has created a path for students to receive training in this growing area. Yet, only five students are currently enrolled.

“Graduates of the program combine the deep content knowledge of the environment with the communication skills sought by employers,” Heidi Hennink-Kaminski, Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Studies, said.

Because most students do not hear of the program until it is too late to begin and the notoriously difficult admissions process, enrollment has consistently remained low.

Students need to have a plan to enroll in the program as early as their first year at UNC-CH.

Early advising is essential for a successful application to the program. The classes on the communication side in the Hussman School are particularly in high demand which can lead to enrollment issues, Hennink-Kaminski said.

Graduates of the program often work for non-profits or in-house at a corporation as environmental consultants. There is not much data to pull from, since an average of only five students complete the program each year.

“Environmental issues are still extremely important and have become increasingly important with more attention on the issues,” Ann Marcella Schmitt, Graduate Program Administrative Coordinator, said. “It would be great to see more students apply and be interested in the program.”

 Planning ahead 

For McDarris, the path to enrolling in this program started before she set foot on campus at UNC-CH. Though McDarris did not know she would eventually take part in the program, her Advanced Placement exam scores would allow her to consider enrollment.

“Having two degrees on my wall definitely helped me land the job I have,” McDarris said. “Though, I would not call the program glamorous.”

In order to complete the dual degree program in five years, students need to arrive a step ahead with a large amount of applicable AP credits, Hennink-Kaminski said. Then, they must immediately know to start taking classes in the two areas of focus, environmental studies or science, and communication.

Undergraduates wishing to apply to the program in their junior year need to plan ahead to take the required prerequisite course and stay on track with B.A./B.S. degree requirements. Students admitted into the program also need to be prepared to do graduate-level work their senior year.

“The kind of people who participate in this program are students who are majoring in Environmental Studies or Environmental Science and who come to UNC-CH with substantial AP credit hours that allow them to begin taking graduate-level courses their senior year,” Hennink-Kaminski said. “Students are eligible to apply if they have double-majored or minored in Media and Journalism or taken three prescribed courses in the Hussman school.”

Applying to the program was stressful, current program participant Jessica Reid said. It was difficult for her to have to wait until her junior year of college, when the application takes place, to know if she would be able to take part in the program.

Making sure she took all the required prerequisites to apply to the program was made difficult by the enrollment process at UNC-CH, Reid said. Getting into the right classes did not always work out, so she sometimes worried about applying when the time came.

Though Reid is an Honors Carolina student and published a book, “Planet Now: Effective Strategies for Communicating about the Environment,”  she wondered if she would be admitted into the program—and if it would be worth all the work it took to apply.

“The admissions program is looking for very motivated students who have a clear idea of what they want to do and how this program will help them with their career goals,” Schmitt said. “It sounds cool to do a program like this. We want students that understand the rigor of getting a master’s so early”

There are other environmental organizations around campus, such as UNC Institute for the Environment, that work for the same common goal, yet these programs are not endorsing the dual degree program.

“I actually found out about the dual degree program from a flyer slipped under the door of my freshman dorm,” Reid said.

 What’s around the corner

Creating a sustainability strategy that includes the research of faculty, staff and students, education and service endeavors will indelibly intertwine the future of the university into the fabric of the experiences of the people who live, work and study here, said Emily Williams, Director of University Relations UNC Institute for the Environment.

“I think the future of this program lies in making it more of a thing,” McDarris said. “There are these people who do it each year but never feel like they are part of the program. I don’t really have a ton of loyalty to the program itself because it didn’t feel like it was concrete. I was very lucky to get my job, and I didn’t feel like I had much help to get it.”

Her field notebooks from that time are still readily accessible in a box in her closet, McDarris said. She no longer participates in fieldwork, but her focus on the environment holds true.

Edited by Robert Curtis and Kyle Mehlman