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Tell us about yourself

Vinod is a first year international student from Sri Lanka in the Sustainability Planning and Management specialization (Masters of Environment, MENV) at University of Colorado, Boulder. He is keenly interested in the convergence of development and conservation in the South Asia, from a community based approach to development. Having traveled extensively in Asia, he is very passionate about protecting the biodiversity of this region and helping the people he feels most closely connected with.

Vinod’s undergraduate studies in Anthropology & Geography have helped him further understand how to interact with local communities and engage with them in a non-invasive manner. He has keen interest in entrepreneurship and has successfully started an eco-friendly community hostel in Colombo, amidst many other small ventures with friends in Colombo.

Vinod wants to return to Sri Lanka and Asia to continue his work in environmental development upon graduating at CU Boulder

“No – it’s not what you might be thinking, although, given that the Masters of the Environment Program (MENV) is located in, Colorado, it’s easy to jump to assumptions! In the most literal sense of the word, for me, a son of the tropics from Sri Lanka, coming to Colorado, Boulder, meant that I would be at the highest altitude that I had ever been at. I had never seen mountains as vast as the Rockies or experienced the thinner air that comes with the height, but coming into this city and program already feels like second nature to me.”

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

The prospect of studying what I love (Sustainability and Community Planning) in a professional setting taught by some of the best faculty in the world in a place like Boulder was already exciting. When I walked into the room on Monday, August15th, and heard the enthusiasm of Joel Hartter’s (Faculty Director, MENV) voice booming through the room, I knew instantly that I had chosen right and that this would be home for the next 17 months. As each of faculty leads introduced themselves, sharing anecdotes from their intriguing lives, the main thing that resonated with me was the passion each of them brought to the program. They made us feel that having us, the first cohort of this program, which had been in the works for many years, finally sitting before them, was a realization of a collective faculty dream and that simple fact made the whole orientation even more special to me.

How was the first day at MENV, Colorado?

A palpable sense of excitement filled the room as our orientation plans were shared with us. Similar to the Master’s program itself, all of the orientation activities had been carefully crafted by the MENV faculty and staff to get us, from Day One, out into the wonderful wilderness that surrounded us. As Joel Hartter so aptly described it was time for “environmental boot camp”. And, that it was.

Over the next few days, we learnt about a wide variety of things – wildfires (a natural disaster that’s largely unknown in my part of the world, and which fascinated me), the hydrological cycle in this region, approaches to measuring our climate and about the local food system. And – the best part was that all of this knowledge was imparted through field trips to the surrounding areas. Not only did this approach to learning excite all of us but it gave us real life examples and demonstrated practical applications that tend to resonate more than a text book ever can.

A group BBQ at a neighborhood park further fostered a sense of the MENV as a community and eased us further into our program, before the final activity of orientation completely blew our minds: a field excursion to the famed Rocky Mountain National Park. The vast wilderness that encompasses this national park was breathtaking, not to mention the MENV faculty providing us with a delicious packed lunch at 12’000 feet, by far the highest meal I have had to date. For me, being an international student in an alien place I could not have asked for a better orientation week – in the immortal words of John Denver, being here in “Rocky Mountain High” already feels like “coming home to a place [I’ve] never been before.”

Tell us about a few learning experiences at MENV

It is obvious that learning does not have to be confined to the classroom and doing the bare minimum to tick the box of “getting a master’s degree” is not the ethos of the MENV program. To further our learnings and interests the Faculty and Staff of the program have been extremely diligent in passing on events and community opportunities for learnings.

Boulder city and community aside, the CU Campus is filled with amazing educational opportunities. In April, the Conference of World Affairs was held on the CU Campus for a week. An annual event the CWA showcased a number of panels, films and sessions on a wide range of topics spanning from the promise of the shared economy to the future of water to the human desire of narratives. All of the events were free and open to the public as well as students, with students getting priority on questions.

Aside from the CWA, a day-long conference on Conscious Capitalism was held in April as well. This conference is also held annually at CU but each year a new theme is selected for it. This year, the conference was themed around food security and its surrounding issues. This was of special interest to me as I have been devoting more time to learn about the issues surrounding food.

To further complement the Conscious Capitalism Conference on Food Security, a film screening of SEED: An Untold Story was organized by thee CU Sustainability Office. SEED is a new film that discusses the importance of seeds and dives into the issues that surround the patenting of seeds; an issue which has proved to be a worldwide problem.

It is hard to imagine but all of these wonderful events were held in the month of April. It also must be noted that these are the events that I decided to attend as they were of educational interest to me. However, the CU Campus has many other events across a diversity of fields and always has something fun and educational going on that would be of interest to you. To further make planning easier, the MENV program now sends out a weekly digest with events of interest for our students. There is no excuse to miss out on events now!

The Colorado Environmental Film Festival (CEFF) is an exciting, inspiring and educational event that brings together an array of world-class environmental films from both local, national and international organizations and filmmakers. As part of MENV’s outreach activities, the program acted as a sponsor for the 2017 event that was held in Golden, CO.

Known for the Colorado School of Mines and the Coors Brewing Plant, Golden is located south of Boulder and is a short drive away. The CEFF 2017 line up proved to be amazing, with many international and local films that were extremely pertinent being showcased at the three-day film festival. Hearing from filmmakers about their motivations, struggles and methods of environmental advocacy work was very moving as well as educational.

Further realizing the value that visual storytelling has in this day and age, we decided to host a CEFF Caravan event for the MENV and Environmental Studies students in Boulder. Mika and I shortlisted a number of films and narrowed it down to four films that we thought would work best given our cohorts interests. The program assisted us with the logistics and before we knew it, we were hosting a mini-film festival.

Located in Downtown Boulder and equipped with a private room for the event, Shine was our selected location. CEFF handed us the selected four films on a hard drive prior to the event and we sent out invitations to our students, environmental studies students as well as our capstone partners.

As the day rolled around, we were all very excited. Not only to share these four amazing films with our students but also for an opportunity to mingle with our fellow environmental studies graduate and PhD students, who we hardly got a chance to meet.

The event was a success; nearly 100 people attended and no technological glitches brought the event to a halt! The films were educational, inspiring and spoke to the wide range of audience present that evening. Given the great turnout and fun-filled atmosphere of the event, its hard to imagine that this will be the last MENV film night.

How will your studies benefit the community?

Growing up on the tropical island of Sri Lanka, I was exposed to the wonders of its biodiversity from a young age. Exploring its jungles, coastline and hills I developed a deep love for Sri Lanka’s environment. However, as Sri Lanka developed as a nation I began to see its natural resources dwindle. It was this growing concern, coupled with my thirst for travel, adventure and the love for the outdoors that spurred me onto pursing an education in the environmental field.

All of the classes I have taken during my time with the MENV program have been shaped by my dream to return to Sri Lanka and continue the work I did prior to enrolling in the program. The faculty involved in the program have been extremely accommodating of my keen interest to pursue working in Sri Lanka, and have been open to me, basing my class projects in Sri Lanka. For example, this semester one of the classes I am enrolled in (Sustainable Livelihoods, Sustainable Landscapes) as part of my specialization of Sustainability Planning and Management, has me working on a consultancy project back in Colombo. The project entails conducting online research on understanding consumer and stakeholder attitudes towards sustainable packaging materials.

Sri Lanka, faced with a huge issue of waste has decided to eliminate all plastic and polythene in the country come 2018, so there is a need for alternative packaging materials. In order to create a sustainable landscape and a sustainable livelihood, a local company based in Sri Lanka is looking to reintroduce a traditional form of packaging material that was overlooked for cheap Chinese plastic products that flooded the market. That’s where I come in. My project for the class, has me designing and conducting an online survey to understand if this solution is a viable option and if consumers, retailers and other involved stakeholders would buy in and want to use this traditional product. Currently, midway through the semester the project has been going smoothly and I have been fortunate enough to gather some good data across a cross section of the Sri Lankan society.

Due to little projects like this, I have been able to keep in touch with the environmental scene back home and also contribute to it in a number of ways and for that I thank the MENV faculty that have allowed me the freedom to work on projects that make me tick. As, the final few months of this program rolls around, I am filled with a sense of sadness though. It truly has been a wonderful experience. Living in Boulder, interacting with the amazing faculty and staff that have flocked to this school and forging some solid relationships with the MENV cohort, have all been rewarding in their own ways. So, here’s to a few more solid months of life as a MENV student!