The Future: The New, The Inspiring, and my Ensuing Confusion

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New Years fireworks in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina

Happy New Year! After a little hiatus from the keyboard, I’m back and looking forward to all the adventures 2015 has in store (I still cannot believe it’s 2015). Though we’re just a few weeks into the year, so much good has already happened.

Globally, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is celebrating the International Year of Soil. On the agenda are 120 soil-related worldwide events and projects  to celebrate the importance of this natural resource and to  support cultivation of healthy soil for the future. As FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva noted, “Unfortunately, 33 percent of our global soil resources are under degradation and human pressures on soils are reaching critical limits, reducing and sometimes eliminating essential soil functions.” Thus this year’s attention to and work with soil is critical for agriculture and food supply for the future. Some of the year’s projects include a digital soil map of the world serving as a global resource for farmers, scientists and governments, and the Soil Science Society of America’s “I Heart Soil” coloring book to engage children in the celebration.

Bean plant from last summer's growing season
It starts with the soil

Nationally, a large part of this goodness comes from the USDA and its efforts to promote conservation of agricultural lands and the development of young farmers. In the past two weeks, the USDA kicked off two huge programs – the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which will provide more than $370 million in funding to 115 conservation projects nationwide, and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, through which $18 million in funding will be available to projects enhancing the sustainability of the next generation of farmers.

Bringing it down to a local level, New York City announced last week that plastic foam containers, including cups, plates, and the like, will be banned beginning this summer. In 2014 alone, the city collected a whopping 28,500 tons of expanded polystyrene (the stuff that makes up those containers), with 90% of that being from those lunch boxes and coffee cups synonymous with fast food, tight schedules, and a culture always on the go. The New York City council made this decision after a year long research study that concluded there was no way to properly recycle the polystyrene materials. 28,500 tons of non-recyclable, non-refundable, non-beneficial trash? A decision well made, I think.

In Seattle, a new ordinance prohibiting food waste from residential and commercial garbage took effect on January 1st. Household violators will be charged $1 for each offense, and $50 for apartment complexes and commercial businesses. Seattle is not alone in the composting arena, cities like Vancouver, Portland and San Francisco all have composting requirements. The new law is estimated to prevent 38,0000 more tons of food scraps from being dumped in an Eastern Oregon landfill each year – and that’s just by declaring food scraps, paper napkins, and pizza boxes as “not garbage”. 38,000 tons of food waste, napkins, and pizza boxes?! But, change is taking place and it’s all good.

All these changes, innovations, and projects have me incredibly inspired, but also confused. During my 8 hour drive back to school for my last semester of college (I graduate in May, yay!), a cloud was slowly developing over my head and now looms large in the form of a big fat question mark. 3 and a half years have blown by, and now here I am with graduation 14 weeks away, and a life uncharted awaiting me beyond the gates. So, what comes next?

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Research, scheduling, making plans

My passion for food culture and justice, and the experiences to which my passions led have all cemented my choice to pursue a “career” in the public sector working with sustainable food systems. Before the semester started, I attended an alumni networking conference, appropriately titled, “Beyond the Gates”. There were many inspiring, powerful, and incredibly helpful alumni in attendance, and I definitely learned a lot about the corporate hiring process, what makes a standout resume, and how to balance work and personal life. Though this is all useful knowledge in today’s working society, which I realize I will be a part of starting in May, many of the questions I have were left unanswered. What if I don’t want to work with a company where I’m just another resume on HR’s desk? What if I don’t know the “right” people? What if the “career” path I’m choosing isn’t high paying? What do I do about student loans in that case? What do I do when people tilt their heads to the side and ask me why in the world would I want to do, well, what I want to do? Being a part of the “impatient” generation, as I’ve heard “us” called, I am not only anxious to get out and start working – start helping, I’m quite confused as to how I am supposed to go about it. Is it all really a matter of navigating the mainstream or getting eroded along the cut bank?

Needless to say, I felt stressed after the conference, but also encouraged. At the conference and in life, I’ve also met those who have been hugely supportive – providing me with advice, contacts, and uplifting words. A wonderful woman who works with AT&T and their sustainability initiatives raved to me about the success of community gardens in a poor suburb of Brazil, and the farmers, small business workers, and sustainability champions I’ve encountered expressed nothing but excitement and sincere hope that my passions will be manifested in my occupation. Unfortunately, the prevailing system makes it quite difficult unless you happen to find yourself pretty financially blessed. Though they are the minority, these instances have pushed me to continue to search for avenues of support, so that hopefully, one day soon, I will be in a position where I am working with an organization out of love for what I do, and not substantiating a work life that I dread just for a paycheck.

These are some of my own concerns, but just within my friend group, there is a crazy spectrum of feelings about the future. I have a friend who is applying to PhD programs who fears unemployment if she doesn’t get in, and isn’t even sure what she’ll do after acquiring the PhD. Another friend is hoping to travel to South America, teaching English with the Episcopal Church, despite the worries of her loving, yet protective parents. Another is taking a leap of faith and moving to a city he’s never been to before in the hopes of finding a job once he’s settled. Another completely changed her mind about medical school even after taking all the required classes, being unable to substantiate the necessary time and money. I have friends who haven’t even thought of jobs or graduate schools because they’re scared of 1) being rejected, 2) doing things “wrong”, and/or 3) choosing the “wrong” thing. Others simply just want to take a break and travel, do something different.

Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless – Thomas Edison

Personally, in this culture of endless choice and instant gratification, I think we either become highly ambitious, wanting to do everything at once, or very hesitant, being too scared to commit for fear of something better coming along. If you completely disagree with that, which is fine, there’s also the matter of all the money that goes into the system – GREs/LSATs/MCATs/etc., the preparation for those tests, the school application fees, the outfits for job interviews, the gas you need to get to all these places, the energy your computer sucks up while writing countless emails, the cramps your hand suffers from writing on the nice looking “Thank You” cards you purchased to impress your potential employer/advisor, the cost of moving cities, the rent you now have to pay, the student loan letters reminding you that 1) you’re employed and can now pay them back or 2) once you are employed you will have to pay them back – with ever increasing interest no less, and all of the food that you may or may not be eating (and if you aren’t, you are therefore wasting it – see comment about Seattle), because you are so busy trying to keep up with all of these things we have to do to be “successful”. Don’t get me wrong, I think hand written notes are wonderful, I love networking, and there really is nothing else worth going into debt for than your education. But, the way it all works and the ensuing pressure, is not only stressful – it can be downright confusing.

For me, that’s where faith comes into play. In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day tomorrow, and because these words have helped me through many a rough spot:

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

It really is about having faith in your decisions, especially when you don’t know how your decisions will fit into the whole “grand scheme” of things. For myself, and others wanting to pursue work with local organizations, sustainability initiatives, food justice issues, and many other realms in the environmental and social fields, it’s a hard route to navigate. But, there are many resources and avenues of support out there, which is why I’ve created a “Resource” page to highlight some of the tools available to those of us in danger of getting stuck in the cut bank.

Vermont Law School - South Royalton, VT
Vermont Law School – South Royalton, VT

In terms of future plans, I do count myself as very fortunate. One morning during Christmas break, I awoke to an email in my inbox with the subject line “Welcome to Vermont Law School!”. During my time WWOOFing in New Hampshire, I ventured over to South Royalton (if you go, definitely grab lunch at the Worthy Burger), and toured VLS. I was attracted to not only the beautiful setting of the school, but also its commitment to educating and providing invaluable resources to those wanting to pursue careers with public policy, environmental advocacy, and other not-so-high-paying fields. Their Center for Agriculture and Food Systems was also right up my alley, but what really got me was their application. They didn’t require the GRE (you could submit scores if you wished), and the essays sought out what changes I had made in my community, what changes I wanted to make in our national community at large, and what I thought VLS could help me with in pursuing these aspirations. I wasn’t a number that either did or didn’t make the cut, and I wasn’t someone they just wanted to add to their statistics. That spoke volumes to me. I am incredibly excited to have been accepted to their Master of Food and Agriculture Law and Policy program, and I truly believe my experience pursuing the masters would serve me well in my planned “career”, but the question of “how?” comes up again. Graduate school is not cheap, and they are also a business, no matter how much good they produce. Money must go in, for services to come out.

A brochure I received from VLS. My personal favorite "Why VLS" reasons include: Snowshoeing out of your backdoor, maple sugaring at professors' houses, and feeling like part of a family.
A brochure I received from VLS. My personal favorite “Why VLS” reasons include: Snowshoeing out of your backdoor, maple sugaring at professors’ houses, and feeling like part of a family.

So, that’s next on my list, figuring out scholarships, fellowships, and alternative options, but during this journey I’ve learned one truly valuable lesson – to be comfortable with confusion. You can never know everything, which is why things are new. It’s why they’re inspiring. It’s also why they’re confusing – but hey, with a little foot work and a whole lot of faith, life may stick you somewhere you never thought you’d be, and that you never thought you’d like. But then it turns out you do. And then it’s all good.

– E

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