March 22, 2018
A Bonner leader, Speth conducted ecology research in Costa Rica, volunteered in Jamaica and studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. She also interned with the Institute on Science and Global Policy and, after graduating from Ursinus, moved to Hong Kong, where she worked as a Visiting Service-Learning Tutor at Lingnan University.
Last year, Speth earned a yearlong fellowship through Princeton in Africa, a program that develops young leaders committed to Africa’s advancement. She was placed with The Rwanda School Project, whose mission, according to its website, is to provide high-quality secondary education in Rwanda by offering a secure and nurturing school environment that transforms vulnerable youth into future leaders and problem-solvers who champion environmental sustainability and social change.
There, she had the opportunity to share her passion for agriculture and environmental sustainability.
What was your experience in Africa like?
It was an incredible opportunity to work in the environmental field in East Africa and to get field experience there. During my time at Ursinus, I mainly focused my studies on environmental issues within sub- Saharan Africa, so to be able to connect what I had studied in the classroom to both my work and my everyday life was surreal. For example, in my political ecology class senior year, we studied the conflicts between conservationists and communities in Kenya. Then, during my fellowship, I was able to travel to Northern Kenya and experience these issues first-hand.
The other big takeaway came from my interactions with students and teachers. Not only were they extremely welcoming and helpful with introducing me to Rwandan culture, but their drive and ambition for effective education was truly inspiring.
The Rwanda School Project opened Rwamagana Lutheran School in 2010 and it focuses a lot on environmental, social and economic sustainability. What was your role there?
My role as environmental coordinator was to increase environmental literacy on campus while helping to develop an environmental science curriculum. Currently, environmental topics are integrated into a few high school subjects but they are not a main focus. Our goal was to create a program that would prepare students to enter the environmental field, which, with ecotourism on the rise in East Africa, is extremely prevalent.
During my time with The Rwanda School Project, I wrote and submitted a proposal for an advanced level [grades 10-12] environmental science curriculum to the Rwanda Education Board. It was well-received, so hopefully it can be fully implemented soon. I also served as a college and career adviser for the students, working with the students as they applied to colleges and various post-secondary programs.
How does Rwanda’s growth contribute to a greater need for environmental sustainability?
Post-genocide Rwanda is one of the fastest developing countries in the world. Driving through the country now with its pristine, well-lit roads and newly constructed buildings, you would never know that there was almost no infrastructure 20 years ago. But with development comes a lot of environmental challenges. This means that in order to ensure that the country develops in an environmentally conscious and sustainable way, the need for an environmental education in Rwanda is greater now than ever before, particularly for secondary students who will enter the workforce in the next five to 10 years.
The issue is, you can’t just pick up an environmental studies textbook from the U.S. and give it to a Rwandan student. They wouldn’t relate to the issues or case studies used in the context of their lives. We needed to give these students issues and cases that are relevant to their everyday lives so that they understand how environmental issues, such as climate change, affect them and their communities and what they can do to work toward effective solutions. This is why it was so important to me to be part of the development of an Afrocentric, place-based environmental studies curriculum.
What drew you to environmental studies?
I have always been inclined to public service, but it was really a sustainable engineering and economic development class that I took in high school that interested me in environmental studies. I remember being interviewed by an Ursinus alum as a high school senior and I told them I wanted to work in international development and environmental sustainability in sub-Saharan Africa, so my interests over the years have not changed that much. Ursinus definitely allowed me to pursue these interests and passions and turn them into a career. For example, being a Bonner leader allowed me to work with environmentally focused nonprofit organizations in Philadelphia and participate in international service both in Jamaica and South Africa, while being a CSCG [Parlee Center for Science and the Common Good] fellow allowed me to connect my interests in ecology and public service.
I realized this past year that a good way to tie all these passions together would be to become a college professor. I’m currently applying to graduate school as I work as a college and career adviser at Northside College Prep (in my hometown of Chicago). My ultimate career plan is to get my Ph.D. in geography and eventually work as a professor at a liberal arts college, completing political ecology research in East Africa and teaching classes with international service-learning and civic engagement components.