Students in the USC Dornsife Environmental Studies Program (ENST) train to become the world’s next generation of environmental leaders: scientists, policy makers, communicators, educators, and more.
Environmental issues affect every part of our lives, and our program trains you to tackle environmental and sustainability problems from multiple angles. Plus, we’ve got some pretty cool experiences waiting for you at the Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island!
Ways to Connect with Environmental Studies
Get a degree!
ENST offers several options for undergraduate majors and minors, plus master’s degrees.
Become a scientific diver
If you’re planning a career in scientific research connected to the ocean, we can help you earn the certification you need.
Take a class or two
Regardless of your major, if you’re interested in sustainability, ENST classes can add depth to your degree.
Growing up in a small town in western Georgia, Nick Foster spent his early life connected to the natural habitat surrounding him. Now an alumnus of the Environmental Studies Program in the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, he recently followed his passion for the environment across the North Pacific Ocean. The nautical voyage, hosted by the Ocean Exploration Trust, was a part of a global effort to map the entirety of our world’s oceans.
Foster graduated from high school knowing that he wanted to pursue higher education, but he wasn’t quite sure what to study. He joined the Marine Corps and was stationed in Hawaii, where he developed an affinity for ocean science. Above all, his connection with the community near his base, and the community’s connection with the ocean, affirmed his admiration for the deep blue. “Everybody there is so intertwined with the ocean. How could you not be on an island? So being in this environment really just furthered my love of the ocean,” Foster says.
After spending several years on the Island, Foster returned to the U.S. mainland to further his education. He planned to fund his studies through the G.I. Bill but discovered that it caps tuition coverage at $25,000 per year for private schools. USC’s participation in the Yellow Ribbon Program, which waives tuition not covered by the G.I. Bill, made the university affordable for Foster. In 2017, he enrolled as an undergraduate major in the Environmental Studies Program (ENST), with a minor in Geographic Information Systems and Sustainability Sciences.
ENST proved the perfect home for a curious, ambitious student like Foster. “While I was an undergrad, I would do anything I could to get out there and learn as much as I could about anything directly related to ocean exploration or ocean science,” Foster says. His motivation would lead him to accepting an internship at Esri, a global market leader in Geographic Information Systems (GIS).
While attending the Esri Ocean, Weather, and Climate GIS Forum, Foster met key leaders of the Ocean Exploration Trust (OET), a nonprofit dedicated to uncovering the mysteries of our oceans. Among many other initiatives, OET has been working in conjunction with the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO) to complete Seabed 2030, an ambitious project to create a free, definitive, and publicly available map of the world’s ocean floor by the year 2030.
The project captivated Foster from the moment he learned about it. “We know more about the surface of the Moon and Mars than we do about our own planet,” he says. “There’s more ocean than there is land, and we know very little about the deep ocean.” He applied to embark on a 10-day excursion to map a portion of the ocean floor with OET, and a few months later, his application was accepted.
Growing up on Washington’s Bainbridge Island, just off the coast of Seattle, Sean Fraga spent many of his waking hours immersed in the region’s unique and stunning natural environment. The tall fir and pine trees and landscapes shaped by tides were his playground–but he took it all for granted, he says, until he went to college. There, he experienced an academic awakening that turned his mind back to the landscapes of his childhood and shaped the research he’ll bring to his new role as an assistant professor (teaching) in the USC Dornsife Environmental Studies Program (ENST).
Fraga enrolled for undergraduate studies at Yale University planning to study the Middle East, learn Arabic, and enter the U.S. Foreign Service. Then a history class changed his mind. “I realized that not only could I study the past, but it was also a window into the present,” he says. He remembered his childhood kayaking excursions around the derelict wharves and pilings of Bainbridge Island, and he began to wonder about the stories behind them.
Sean Fraga on a kayaking trip in the Pacific Northwest
“They’re still there like ghosts in the landscape, a reminder of a different way of organizing the environment and interacting with the world,” he says. “I realized that I could learn more about the place I was from, that it had a unique history in the U.S.”
Digging into Yale’s archives on the North American West and then continuing to a history Ph.D. at Princeton, Fraga also discovered that his relationship to Seattle was unusual. Growing up, he nearly always approached the city by ferry, and he always thought of Seattle in the context of its relationship to the ocean. He didn’t see that way of understanding the North American West–as a coastal region, with the ocean as central to its history–well-represented in academic literature. Instead, scholars tended to focus on terrestrial stories: the Gold Rush, farming, cattle ranching. And research on water almost always focused on inland water sources, scarcity, and drought.
As Fraga points out, however, the Pacific coastline is the U.S.’s longest international border. Water has shaped the West Coast landscape and the way people conceive of using it. For instance, he says, many explorers and settlers who traveled West overland did so with a motivation to see the fabled Pacific Ocean. The search for the Northwest Passage, a more efficient way to move trade goods to the Pacific Ocean, drove centuries of European explorers and colonizers, starting with Christopher Columbus. And even though we typically think of the transcontinental railroad as enabling travel between cities around the U.S. heartland, it was originally called the Pacific railroad and was created to connect the East Coast to the Pacific Ocean.
Fraga found through his research that, ultimately, the gravitational pull of the Pacific Ocean underpinned much of our nation’s expansion, settlement, and growth well into the twentieth century. The stories people told themselves about the Pacific and the need (or right) to access it helped spark Manifest Destiny, the growth of major ports in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego–and, of course, destructive displacement of Indigenous peoples and alterations to the landscape.
Coming to USC as a Mellon postdoctoral scholar two years ago, Fraga worked these stories and their consequences into the book he’s finishing, Ocean Fever: Steam Power, Transpacific Trade, and American Colonization of Puget Sound. He’s now ready to bring his nuanced understanding of the American West and its natural environment to ENST, which uses an interdisciplinary approach to help students understand and solve the environmental and sustainability problems that affect every aspect of our lives.
Fraga loves that interdisciplinary focus, he says, because it recognizes that we understand our world through stories, and that stories are highly effective at changing people’s behaviors. As an example, he points to recently enacted local ordinances that aim to reduce ocean pollution by banning or limiting the use of single-use plastics such as straws and shopping bags. People knew that plastics were bad for the environment because scientists had been sharing data on the subject for years. But people acted on the data because they encountered sad stories about straws affecting marine life, or animals getting stuck in plastic waste. Such stories, he says, helped people finally connect the dots between small, daily choices and wider environmental damage.
Interdisciplinary thinking is also key to making headway against environmental injustice, he says. For instance, air pollution is a problem that disproportionately affects communities of color. That impact stems from the historic practice of redlining, which segregated neighborhoods around the country by race and pushed families of color into areas bordering heavy industry, ports, and other major sources of pollution.
“We need to be critical of the way we use markers of difference to create stratification, and we need to bring attention to markers of identity and how they’re associated with environmental problems,” Fraga says. “These are questions where I think the critical eye of the humanities is helpful in pointing out how current inequalities in society are almost always the result of past decisions.”
He’s excited that he’ll get to share the power of story and interdisciplinary thinking through undergraduate teaching, which he sees as a “multiplier” for impact. His goal is not just to transmit knowledge to undergraduates but also to feed their curiosity and equip them as investigators and problem-solvers.
“I’ll be letting them loose on some big environmental problems and seeing what they come up with. I don’t know what they’re going to find, but I’m sure it’s going to be interesting,” he says.
September 11, 2001, was a watershed moment for many Americans. The terrorist attacks of that day prompted people across the country to reassess their directions in life, and Shannon Gibson was one of those people. An associate professor (teaching) in USC Dornsife’s Department of Political Science and International Relations, she’ll join the Environmental Studies Program (ENST) faculty this fall. She traces her research interests–global environmental policy and activism–back to that day 21 years ago.
“I started off as a journalism major, and I was a sophomore when 9/11 happened. As someone who had never traveled outside the U.S. and who’d had a very American-centric education, I suddenly felt like I knew very little about the actors and issues outside our borders,” she says.
After switching her major to political science with a focus on international relations, she earned a master’s degree in international studies with a focus on global public health at the University of Miami. There, she experienced the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, which together were responsible for several of the deadliest and most intense storms to hit U.S. soil. The aftereffects of those hurricanes showed her that natural disasters, like pandemics, could be devastating to national welfare and security–and that climate change was intensifying both threats.
Shannon Gibson (back left) and four of her students at the Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island. The group attended the 2021 session of the United Nations’ annual climate conference, COP26, from the island as a virtual delegation of accredited observers.
Since then, Gibson has focused her research on climate policy and climate activism. She has attended five United Nations climate conferences (called Conferences of the Parties, or COPs) and two World Social Forums as both an observer, researcher, and scholar-activist. Through her work, she studies how climate activism takes shape, what activists are able to achieve, and the formation of public policies, international agreements, and legislation on climate change and the environment.
Climate activism, Gibson has found, is far more varied and complex than many people realize.
“One misconception is the stereotype of the eco-centric tree hugger,” she says. “In reality, the majority of youth are mobilizing around issues of politics, gender, race, labor, justice. It’s not just about saving the planet, it’s about doing so in a way that creates a just and equal system for everyone.”
This focus is important, she says, because poorer countries experience the most intense climate impacts but are often left out of discussions about solutions. COP, for instance, is the world’s most influential climate conference. But it’s typically held in the wealthy cities of the global North, where immigration laws and the cost of travel create an insurmountably high barrier to entry for many delegates from poorer nations. When those delegates do attend the conference, they often find that interpreters for their native languages aren’t available, or that they literally don’t have a seat at the table when major agreements (such as the 2015 Paris Agreement) are being negotiated.
In addition, the mitigation efforts outlined in climate agreements are often tailored to fit the economies and resources of wealthy nations. For instance, policymakers are already discussing carbon trading (also called “cap and trade” or “emissions trading”) and geoengineering as areas of focus for the next COP, which will be held in November 2022. Those solutions, however, are based on the kinds of market structures found in the wealthiest nations. Gibson believes that they simply recreate or reinforce existing economic and social hierarchies, leaving resource-poor nations and groups without fair or effective solutions to mitigate the disproportionate effects of climate change on their communities.
As part of the ENST faculty, Gibson will work with students to study existing and emerging climate policies and modes of activism through an interdisciplinary lens. She intends to incorporate natural sciences, business, politics, and law into her courses as she shows students how to approach policies with a critical eye and think outside current norms to define equitable, effective, and research-based climate solutions.
“It’s a topic you can’t address properly unless you have all those viewpoints. It’s also important to engage communal perspectives because it shouldn’t just be those of us who went to college or got elected to a political position who are making the decisions,” she says. “We need to ask questions of the people who are the stewards of resources, like First Peoples or those in front-line communities. From a civil society perspective, I hope we can get beyond the idea that there’s one right kind of activism because we need all of it.”