Serving the Planet
Education and career opportunities in public and environmental affairs.
Large, modern democracies like India and the United States are often crucibles for debates about the proper roles of politicians, citizen advocates and public servants. One factor about which we have little dispute is that great nations demand an unwavering commitment to service.
Whether leading the public charge to protect the planet or researching critical issues affecting ecosystems, public and environmental affairs professionals are at the heart of interdisciplinary challenges that require deep commitment and a sense of purpose. Confronting issues at both local and global levels, students and professionals in these areas represent diverse academic fields. From a Bachelor of Arts in environmental and sustainability studies to a Ph.D. in environmental science, there is a wide range of degree programs that can shape students’ interests and passions into a career focused on improving public life and the environment.
Effective government and environmental policy depend on many factors. One of the most obvious is the quality of public service. For young people and civic activists looking to build careers and make a difference, pursuit of public service can provide a lifetime of engagement in building and reforming institutions. The United States’ obsession with good government, dating to the Progressive Era marked by the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, has fueled vibrant, high-quality public affairs programs in U.S. higher education. Formal attention to preparing people for public service and public affairs has grown enormously in the United States during the last 40 years.
The School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) at Indiana University illustrates the growth. When the school was founded in 1972, it had a handful of faculty and students and only one degree program. Today, it is home to more than 100 faculty, 1,500 undergraduate majors, 500 master’s and Ph.D. students pursuing dozens of distinctive degrees.
Another facet of the recent trends is the range of programs and degrees offered by U.S. universities is becoming more comprehensive and diverse. Students may pursue generalist degrees in areas such as public administration and public policy. They may also secure more specialized career preparation in specific service areas such as environmental health, sustainable development and natural resource management.
U.S. universities offering public affairs programs cover the spectrum: from Ivy League institutions like Harvard, Big Ten like Indiana and Minnesota to midsize public universities like University of Southern Indiana and small private colleges like Mills College. The diversity of program, price, delivery mode and university setting means that there are many options to satisfy the preferences of most prospective students.
It is difficult to describe the people who usually pursue public and environmental affairs careers because their diversity makes any simple characterization seem like a stereotype. But, they do possess some attributes with frequency. People who pursue these careers are looking for a challenge, sometimes of monumental proportions. Transforming a polluted slum into a livable community or cleaning air and water so they can sustain life could be extraordinary challenges but are the type that draw people to public life.
James L. Perry is distinguished professor emeritus at the Indiana University, Bloomington, School of Public and Environmental Affairs and visiting distinguished scholar, Faculty of Social Sciences, The University of Hong Kong.
Wesley Teter is a former regional director of EducationUSA in India and Central Asia, supported by the U.S. Department of State.