As a student pursuing sustainability, I have been concerned about what life will look like after college. At the end of anxious thought loops about my future career, one factor remains apparent. At some point, I may have to surrender to corporate America. When I do, will it be all that bad? 

"At some point, I may have to surrender to corporate America. When I do, will it be all that bad?"

A few weeks ago, three other sustainability students and I attended the Indiana Sustainability and Resilience Conference in Indianapolis with professor Jonathon Schramm. The conference is hosted by Indiana University and provides a space where Hoosier climate leaders can share knowledge and tools necessary to aid in climate change action and resilience. This is my second year attending, and this time around, I couldn’t help but notice the overwhelming amount of corporate representation in this space.

One of the panels I sat in on discussed climate careers and workforce development. It largely served to help students gain an understanding of what skills employers in climate careers are looking for. The panel consisted of the dean and associate dean of IU’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, and the director of integration strategy at Cummins Inc. 

By the end of the discussion, I felt discouraged. If you want a sustainability career that makes money, your wonder and awe for the natural world won’t cut it; your satisfaction conducting data analysis from 9-5 is what’s important.

Granted, this was a small space with not-so-diverse panelists (career-wise), but it is a reality I have had to come to terms with. At least I’m still in school and have the space to develop these hard skills now, right?

I’m going to have to work, I know that. I just don’t know if the push for hard skills in these spaces is the main priority or even, appropriate, in some cases. Most of the people in this field do the work because they want to. We can’t deny that there is some moral obligation at play here. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for corporate accountability regarding climate change, but corporate accountability should not look like innovating solutions solely to produce at the same rate. Sustainable practices require a balanced system. It will require slowing down development, sticking with the basics, and innovating when needed. And it is going to require a diverse mix of stakeholders and skill sets.  

I take great pride in pursuing this discipline. I am constantly learning about possible career paths. Regardless of the reality I was hit with during that panel, I genuinely believe my passion for the natural world is just as valuable as my spreadsheet skills, and corporate America should, too — we all should. 

Something that stuck with me was a comment made in that panel by Suzanne Kawamleh, a 2023 IU graduate student now working as the environmental strategy manager for Cummins Inc. She said, “I think a soft skill that is oftentimes overlooked is a candidate’s integrity. Their ability to make a call based in morals and doing what is right, even if it may be challenged.” 

Corporate America does not have to be a space void of morality. Tough calls have to be made, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a say in those calls. The education we are receiving right now is only complete once we apply what we learn. In three or four years from now when we’re GIS mapping or creating advertisements for a national corporation, I ask you all not to forget your integrity. To do what is right for yourself, the people, and this planet. If we hold that, a corporate career may not be all bad. 

Eliza is a second year sustainability major with minors in history and social policy from Rock Island, IL. Lately, she’s been enjoying yoga and readings for her American Foodways class.