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

COVID-19-stricken family hunkers down in basement for ‘Camp Covid’

By PJ Morales

What began as a scratchy throat and nagging cough turned out to be something far worse.


It was official: Peter Paulsen had COVID-19.


Off Peter went to the oak-walled basement of his Great Falls, Virginia home, where he wouldn’t have a chance of infecting the rest of his high-risk family members. But it was too late — the basement wouldn’t be a lonely place for long.


A few days later came his youngest daughter, Maddie, and his eldest, Amelia, who both have asthma and thought the coughs were just normal parts of their condition. But after a pair of positive tests, to the basement they went.


Their mother and Peter’s wife, Margaret, came a few days later with the same symptoms. It was getting cramped down there, but they didn’t want to risk the only healthy person left: their teenage son, Spencer.


How to be a happy camper

Down in the bowels of their house, surrounded by wooden walls, the Paulsens formed their own small community. They ate every meal together, marathoned movies on the couch that was just big enough to fit the four of them and constantly kept tabs on each other’s health. It was like a summer camp and emergency ward, all rolled into one.


“Camp Covid,” Amelia called it.


Of course, this camp had no counselors, jamborees, lakes to swim in or weekend camping trips. Instead, this two-week-ish, all-inclusive experience would be confined to a 1,500 square-foot room where the most exercise a camper could get was their morning stretches, or maybe a brisk 10-step walk, if they weren’t short of breath.


The cramped conditions did come with some upsides. For two weeks straight, the Paulsens didn’t cook a single meal. Friends, friends-of-friends, family and neighbors all volunteered to cook meals for the isolated family.


One night, Amelia’s childhood best friend Timothy made the whole family enchiladas, with each person’s meal packaged separately according to their food preferences and a little note accompanying each box. It warmed her heart, even if it didn’t warm her palate.


“Ironically, couldn’t taste a thing,” she said.


Is there a doctor in the house?

For everything it didn’t have, though, Camp Covid did have one thing that any summer camp needs: a dedicated nurse. Specifically, the Paulsens had Campbell Virdin, Peter’s niece and a nurse at the emergency ward of Inova Hospital in nearby Alexandria.


Thankfully, for the first week or so, the campers didn’t have to pay a visit to the nurse’s office — or rather, the nurse didn’t have to pay a visit to the camp.


Because of the Paulsens’ penchants for pre-existing conditions, the family was already well-stocked on pulse oximeters that allowed them to check up on their bodies’ oxygen levels. Sure, the symptoms could change from day-to-day, but Campbell knew that as long as the numbers on the pulse ox were in a healthy range, everything would be fine.


However, Campbell also knew that her uncle suffered from high blood pressure, which might make his bout with the disease particularly nasty.


“I figured my uncle wasn’t going to have the best run of it,” Campbell said. “I thought he would be okay, like I didn’t think it was going to kill him.”


But eight days into Camp Covid, Peter’s symptoms were only getting worse, particularly in his chest. Campbell, knowing this might be the start of a more severe pneumonia, paid a visit to the ailing camper.


She knew it wouldn’t be possible to get him into the hospital yet — his symptoms just weren’t bad enough to warrant taking up a bed. A trip to an urgent care center the next day yielded the expected answer: “come back if you feel worse.”


By then, Peter’s pulse ox numbers had begun to trend downwards. One hour, the machine might say 95 — healthy — before falling to 90 a few hours later — not so healthy. When the numbers started dipping into the 80s, Campbell knew there was a problem.


Even over FaceTime, she noticed it. Peter couldn’t even finish a sentence.


Campbell has been working in the emergency ward since the pandemic began. She’s seen death every day she can remember, helped remove freshly-deceased bodies from beds before putting new patients in them an hour later. In a way, she was numb to it all.


Whether that numbness was for better or worse, it taught her one thing: the worse you get, the less likely you are to recover. And so Campbell sprang into action.


“Campbell probably saved my dad’s life,” Amelia said.


First, she sent a young doctor from her hospital, Dr. Morales, to Camp Covid to make sure her instincts were correct. When he saw Peter’s condition, he not only agreed with her, but was able to secure for him something most people would have to wait weeks for:


A hospital bed.


“Why don’t we just give him everything we can,” Campbell remembers saying.


Over the next five days, Peter was put on a full course of treatments, including three liters of oxygen, specific vitamins and foods and periodic doses of the antiviral medication Remdesivir.


Finally, with proper treatment, his lungs began to improve. His symptoms were subsiding.

And on the fifth day, Peter was cleared to return home.


A new normal

At that point, Camp Covid was winding down. Amelia had recovered and gone off to college, not wanting to risk either her or her father’s health by seeing him before she left.


Maddie and Margaret were also at the end of their infectious periods, and their son Spencer, who didn’t have the pleasure of a prolonged basement stay, would later test positive for COVID-19 antibodies in his blood.


Then, slowly but surely, things started to return to normal. Granted, it’s a new kind of normal.


Amelia isn’t cleared to exercise yet because of her decreased lung capacity, and Peter still can’t finish a full work day, hitting a wall of exhaustion around 5:30 p.m.


By and large, though, they’re just grateful to have made it through.


“I couldn’t move more than five steps ,” Peter said. “And if you get into that situation and there’s nobody to help you the way they helped me, it could easily get too bad and you get really sick, and there might be serious consequences to that.”


Before he went to the hospital, Amelia noticed something different about her dad. Looking back on it, maybe the reason he’s so grateful now is that, just for a second, he didn’t think he’d make it.


Camp Covid came to an end, and boy, was Peter glad to see it.


“He would all of a sudden start talking about how appreciative he was of us, and how much he loved us,” Amelia said. “It didn’t go over my head what that meant.”

Edited by: Robert Curtis