Interview with Natalie Unwin-Kuruneri, Associate Director of Education at Earth Institute

Natalie Unwin-Kuruneri is the Associate Director of Education at the Earth Institute. She is an alumni of Columbia University’s Master of Public Administration program.


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Please tell us about your background.

I did my undergraduate studies in sociology and psychology at George Washington University in D.C., and have always wanted to do something that would help people and have an impact on the world.

After college, I worked at Citi in training and development, managing their communication and personal effectiveness programs. At the time there were 19 programs offered at Corporate Center that I was responsible for. After about a year, I had the opportunity to move into a human resources specialist position for the Chief Financial Officer group, where I liaised between client groups and senior management to implement company policy, and made sure our practices were in line with government regulations. I enjoyed the work, but thought “Okay, great, I’m sort of helping people but this isn’t really what I wanted to do.” I’d always been interested in policy, so I began looking at masters programs in New York. I found Columbia’s Master of Public Administration (MPA) program at SIPA and felt that it was perfect for me.

I got into the two-year MPA program and at the end of my first year applied to do a dual degree through the Global Public Policy Network (GPPN). So, through the GPPN, I did my first year at SIPA and then the second year at Sciences Po in Paris. Not only was it an amazing experience, but it was also a great way for me to pursue my interest in policy making and public service from a social welfare perspective.

How did you end up at the Earth Institute?

My introduction to the Earth Institute came from being at SIPA. We read much of Jeffrey Sach’s (Director of Earth Institute) work in the classes on international development, so I became familiar with him and the Institute. After graduation, I was able to get involved with the Earth Institute’s newly launched undergrad-brochureundergraduate major in Sustainable Development– it was one of the first of its kind in the country at that time. We had one graduate the first year in 2010, and since then it has grown exponentially to have about 150 current students.

The Earth Institute is a great place to be because the work is constantly evolving! There are always new education programs being developed and different opportunities to explore. It is an exciting place to be, and my role here has expanded a lot over the past five years.

This summer you coordinated the Environmental Sustainability Study Tour Program in Jordan and Israel. What was the approach in creating this program?

The focus of the program was on cross-border collaboration on environmental issues in the Middle East. It was developed in partnership with the Porter School of Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University, which is very similar to the Earth Institute in its focus on environmental and sustainable development education. The Earth Institute and Porter had wanted to do some sort of collaboration for years, and in 2013 I was tasked with making it happen for the first time.

In 2015 we ran the program for a second time, thanks to help from the Provost. I worked really closely with colleagues at the Global Center in Amman and at the Porter School in Tel Aviv, as well as faculty here at Columbia, to craft the program. It was truly a joint effort, and we brought in local collaborators to put together the academic content and itinerary in each country.

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The program took students from Columbia and Tel Aviv University to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority to see how they are cooperating on environmental issues and managing shared natural resources. We spent 2 weeks in the field visiting different sites like the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, and the Hebron River, and learned how those resources are being exploited, polluted and depleted. The Jordan River, for example, is a site of ecological and historical importance. It is incredibly polluted and drying up because its natural sources have been diverted for drinking water, agricultural purposes, and sometimes for political reasons. This is contributing to the shrinking of the Dead Sea.

These are real issues that are impacting ecosystems and communities in the region. The program explored how these shared issues could be used as an opportunity to bring people together to talk, and potentially come to peaceful solutions on broader conflict issues.

I’d like to take a step back and look at this concept of sustainability. What does sustainability mean at the Earth Institute?

I think sustainability is a term people use frequently, but EIwith different meanings. It is important to consider the context. I always look at how we define it in our public facing spheres. A lot of times now, like in our sustainability management program, when we’re talking about sustainability, we often talk about it in a business focused manner. It means incorporating issues of water and energy use, waste management, environmental risk, etc into an organization’s functioning, so that it can meet business objectives without negatively impacting the environment, and without being negatively impacted by climate change related challenges.

In a nutshell, more broadly, I’d say it is economic, social and political development for humans—especially for the poorest people— that does not negatively impact the environment and natural resources for the future.

How does this play into Earth Institute’s education opportunities?

The Earth Institute takes the research being done at Lamont-Doherty and across the different centers and connects it to the education programs. You’ll find a lot of Lamont researchers actually teaching in the programs, which is important because they’re the people doing the research. They understand it, and are the best people to teach it. All our programs are very holistic. Students come away with an approach to sustainability that’s not just about the research and the science—they also understand management, policy, economics and operations.

Are there any new programs you’re currently involved in?

The Certifications in Sustainability Analytics and Sustainable Water Management have been around for a couple of years, and this fall is the first year that we are doing intake for a Certification in Sustainable Finance. There are also two new degrees being developed in Sustainability Science and Carbon Management.

What advice would you give to people aspiring to work in education with a global focus on sustainability?

Try to get a foot in the door of an organization that you want to work in and then work hard, prove yourself, and make it known what you want to do and how you can add value. I think if people see that you’re capable, then they want to retain you, and if you see opportunities that can also help them, it’s win-win. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work on the Jordan/Israel project had I not voiced my interest in doing international work and shown my ability to manage complex projects, and to develop and maintain relationships.

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