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  • Writer's pictureThe Mentorship Spot

Environment, Resources, and Sustainability at UWaterloo

Updated: Jul 30, 2020

Written By Aalia Khan

Interviewed and Transcribed by Rachel Snelgrove

I’m just completing my 2nd year of Environment, Resources, and Sustainability (ERS) at University of Waterloo. I’ve been interested in the environment my whole life but people in my program come from a variety of backgrounds, many not knowing entirely what they want to do career-wise but knowing that they want to have a positive impact on the planet. Some people are more interested in ecology or the natural sciences, while others are more policy or business oriented. It’s a really tight-knit community in my faculty and I’ve built some really strong relationships with my TAs, professors, and colleagues. I’d say I’ve definitely thoroughly enjoyed my past two years in this program and am incredibly happy with my decision to come to uWaterloo for ERS.

How diverse do you think your learning is in your program — do you get perspectives from ecology and policy?

ERS is a blend of ecosystems science and environmental policy. You get a roughly equal number of courses in both. Additionally, half of our course plan is free elective space (i.e. you can take courses in whatever you want across the University), so many students will pursue a minor or a double major. For example, I am completing a double major with biology. ERS offers me perspectives in applied ecology and their connections to management and policy, but if I want to do more pure ecology or plant/animal physiology, I can take those types of courses as part of my double major with the department of Biology. Similarly, I have a friend who is really interested in policy and environmental sustainability on a global level, so they get a lot out of the policy courses offered in ERS, but they’re also doing a double major with international development to get more of that.

Why did you choose Environment, Resources, and Sustainability at uWaterloo?

I’ve had a strong interest in ecology since my childhood. I think the reason I chose ERS in particular was because it separates itself from ecology or environmental science/studies programs by integrating ecology with management and policy. There’s also a lot more elective space and flexibility in the types of courses I can take. ERS is very applied — we don’t have to take courses in calculus or pure sciences like physics or chemistry for example — it goes straight to the problems and how to solve them by integrating science with policy. It’s very solutions-oriented and emphasizes finding a holistic perspective. For example, there are courses which cover systems thinking (e.g. being able to connect ecological/environmental problems to larger systems which involve economics, politics and human wellbeing), environmental anthropology, and other courses which aren’t necessarily present in other environmental programs and give me a better idea of environmental issues and management practices on different levels. As someone who really likes ecology, I like getting the social science perspective without having to take more courses on it than I would like to, but I still have the choice to take more pure social science courses with my elective space if I want to.

What’s your experience with studying for a double major been like?

Double majors have a reputation for being a lot of work because you’re usually piling additional courses on top of your regular course load. However, ERS makes it relatively easy since there’s enough elective space that you can more or less fit in a double major without needing to overwork yourself or take an extra year. Additionally, most of the courses I’m taking in my biology major are ecology related, so they fit really well with my course load. I think for any double major, it’s a matter of being able to make connections between what you’re doing in each major which helps you learn better in both disciplines. For example, I know someone who is doing an ERS/English double major and enjoy connecting concepts from their English courses to their core ERS courses. It’s also easier to pursue a double major as an ERS student because the program really encourages the idea of being transdisciplinary since environmental problems require transdisciplinary solutions. There’s a lot of emphasis on taking electives that may be seemingly unrelated to your core courses, and then coming back and integrating those concepts together. Core courses in ERS also offer ways for us to connect topics that we’re passionate about to what we’re learning. As an example, I really enjoy music, and as part of one of my ERS courses, I got to put together a project in which I used heavy metal music as a lens through which one can explore long-term human cultural development and its impacts on the environment. I found it to be really beneficial to be able to bring those two concepts, both of which are really important to me, together to find new ways of looking at the world.

What separates your program from other environmental programs in Ontario?

As I mentioned previously, there a greater focus on taking transdisciplinary approaches to environmental problems. Additionally, we are starting to shift away from traditional didactic or lecture-style teaching and more towards flipped-classroom and student engagement-based teaching. Class sizes are relatively small which better allows for the feeling of a tight-knit community. It’s more group work, which perhaps isn’t for everyone, but I’ve found this to actually be integral to my learning, since a lot of jobs in the environment sector place a heavy emphasis on collaboration, often with people with different ideals and worldviews. An example of an activity is a project in one of our first-year courses where we had to work with a group to come up with a campus sustainability project. There were tutorials which supported that process, teaching us how to think, plan and act to optimize our projects. My friends and I really like birds, so we put together a grant proposal to get bird-friendly window stickers on some of the buildings. We put together a bird identification workshop and ran a campus-wide bird count. Each activity demonstrates a different sort of planning and communication process with different levels of administration in the University. I feel it’s a really important learning experience for us to have to do our own projects in the real world in our first year. There are also opportunities to take field courses, which can be really helpful for a variety of careers in the environmental sector where you may have to conduct field work in varying environmental and weather conditions. Some field courses also get you certified for things such as the Ontario Benthos Biomonitoring Network (OBBN) certification or the environmental assessment diploma (which I’ll mention in the next question), or teach you about relevant environmental monitoring techniques like Vegetation Sampling Protocol (VSP). The department takes student feedback seriously and courses are constantly improving to be the most relevant and helpful for students once they graduate.

What career prospects do you think this program sets you up for?

Environment students in general usually end up either in environmental research (field work, collecting data, analysing these data, etc.) or in ecosystem policy or management (working with companies as an environmental consultant, working with a Conservation Authority, or with different levels of government to make better environmental decisions, etc.). Some students have started up environmental or sustainability-based NGOs or businesses as well. Our program also offers the option to receive a diploma in Environmental Assessment, which is really helpful in opening doors to work with the government on the environmental assessment process. This diploma consists of five courses, three of which are related to environmental assessment (one of which is already required to graduate as an ERS student) and two of which are additional courses from a recommended list which may include something from biology, law, urban planning, or elsewhere.

What’s the general atmosphere between students, profs, TAs, etc. in your program?

It’s a really tight-knit community. My experience has been really positive. I think Waterloo gets a lot of flack for being very competitive and perhaps not the best in terms of mental health support, and while some of those elements may be present, my department in general tries really hard to overcome these problems. I personally have experienced a really positive atmosphere in my program. My colleagues really support one another and professors are quite compassionate and understanding when it comes to balancing University expectations with personal life. This is especially important given that many of our courses may focus on emotionally heavier subjects such as biodiversity loss, climate change, and impacts to human health. There’s a strong sense of community and there are always opportunities to build strong relationships with graduate students and professors in the program, which I really appreciate. This is a reasonably small program, with 100–130 students/cohort. ERS is nested within uWaterloo’s Faculty of Environment, which has other programs such as Planning, Geography, and Geomatics. All of those other programs are also relatively small, so everyone within the faculty kind of gets to know each other really well through Faculty-wide activities and communal spaces in the Environment buildings. There’s also lots of opportunity to engage in environmental work even beyond your classes — for example, graduate students are always looking for research assistants and facilities such as the University’s Ecology Lab are always looking for volunteers.

What’s one thing you wish you knew before going into first year?

I feel like university is not as scary as people in high school oftentimes make it out to be. It will definitely be a different experience for everyone, but I think if you’re passionate about what you do and genuinely want to make the most out of your program, it can be a fantastic experience. Some programs can have a really heavy course load, but the University offers resources and mental health support, and you can always reach out to your professor or TA if you need to. In high school, I found myself and my peers thinking “university will be very difficult, you need to prepare yourself so much”, but in reality you just need to know what works best for you in terms of studying and work-life balance, and professors in your first year are usually pretty understanding that you’re going through a big transition. Yes, it’s a lot more work and there will definitely be days when you’re completely overwhelmed, but it isn’t like that all of the time. If you and engage with your colleagues in your program and broader community, it can be a really fun experience.

How do you stay involved in your community and how has this helped your overall university experience?

There are so many extracurricular opportunities in the University and in the community off campus. Usually, you get mass emails sent out by your administration about different extra-curricular opportunity. If you’re interested in getting engaged in the community, attend your Clubs Fair, which most if not all universities have during their welcome week. This will give you the opportunity to network outside of your program. Within your program, talk to your friends, and get involved in your local student society, which helps with networking with upper years who can connect you to other extra-curricular opportunities, or even jobs or research projects within your program or community. Outside of that, try looking for events happening in your region that you’re passionate about or want to get involved in. For example, in Waterloo, because there’s such a high student population, there’s a large student-led environmental/social activism base, which is really important for me. This can really help prevent you from only focusing on your studies and keep you more engaged in things that are going on in your community.

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