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St. Olaf alumni turn their passion for preserving the environment into careers

Environmentalism is an important part of everyday life at St. Olaf College. From the college’s restored Natural Lands to the St. Olaf Garden Research and Organic Works (STOGROW) on-campus farm to the LEED-certified Regents Hall of Natural and Mathematical Sciences itself, Oles are cognizant of the responsibility to preserve the land we live and learn on. This same commitment is also reflected in St. Olaf’s sustainable energy focus, with campus power provided by a wind turbine and solar garden that ensure carbon-free electrical power, as well as the recycling and composting initiatives across campus and the work of student organizations like the Environmental Coalition and Climate Justice Collective.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many Oles take these passions off the Hill when they graduate, even devoting their careers to it. With a love for the natural world ingrained in campus life, as well as top-tier academic, extracurricular, and vocational opportunities, it should come as no shock that St. Olaf is a perfect place to begin a career in caring for the Earth. From natural resources to national policy, and from Washington, D.C., to Washington’s National Parks, St. Olaf students who care about the environment will always be in good company among alumni.

Meet three recent graduates who are working in environmental fields, and learn more about the experiences that prepared them and the passions that drive them.

Portrait of Patricio Cortina Valdés ’20
Patricio Cortina Valdés ’20

Patricio Cortina Valdés ’20
Patricio Cortina Valdés ’20 is a financial analyst at National Grid Renewables, a company that develops and operates solar and wind energy farms for businesses and organizations committed to using renewable energy. Cortina puts his environmental studies and economics majors to good use by assessing investment strategies for renewable energy projects.

“What I like the most about this role is that it gives me a full snapshot of a renewable energy development process since I have to collect all the inputs provided by our development, operations, legal, land specialists, and commercial teams to assess the economics of each specific renewable energy project,” he says. He also credits the curriculum at St. Olaf with helping him to develop the broad analytical skills needed to excel at this kind of work. 

In realization of the world’s impending environmental crisis, Cortina cast a wide net during his time on the Hill, using courses like Environmental Economics, Environmental Policy and Regulation, and Economic Development to prepare him for a semester abroad studying renewable energy systems in Denmark. His advice for current Oles is never to be afraid to try out different interests and even industries and to make use of vocational and alumni resources as you look toward a career doing what you love. He also notes that students in all sectors should keep in mind the sustainability practices of the companies to which they apply. 

Portrait of Hannah Edstrom ’16
Hannah Edstrom ’16

Hannah Edstrom ’16
Where Cortina found himself working at the intersection of environment and economics, Hannah Edstrom ’16 has been empowered by combining environmentalism and education.

Currently a tutor with AmeriCorps, Edstrom found her passion working with younger students at a variety of conservancies such as Minnesota’s Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center and NatureBridge in Washington’s Olympic National Park. For her, St. Olaf was a chance to explore the natural and academic world around her. Pursuing dual majors in environmental and Asian studies, she also volunteered with young science students in local schools and captained Tempest, one of the Women’s Ultimate Frisbee teams at St. Olaf. 

Edstrom is committed to continuing her love for education and is currently pursuing her Master of Arts in Teaching for Elementary Education concurrent with her work for AmeriCorps. She looks forward to applying this degree to develop lessons and educational resources for students at an environmental organization. 

She expresses her passion for what she does — and learning as a whole — by giving some context to Oles who want to follow a similar career path. “There are so many different kinds of educators represented in environmental education, each bringing their own specialties with them. There are adventurous educators who love to bring people on trips, ones who love to dive deep into learning about specific plants or animals, and educators who just love working with people. If you are passionate about what you do, the people you teach or interact with will be more excited to learn about what you are sharing.”

Portrait of Joel Jaeger ’14
Joel Jaeger ’14

Joel Jaeger ’14
Where Edstrom educates the leaders of tomorrow, Joel Jaeger ’14 is focused on the leaders of today. 

A political science major who focused in international relations even before it became a concentration, Jaeger is a researcher at the World Research Institute, which he describes as
“a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C., that does research and advises governments at the intersection of the environment and economic development.”

He spends most of his time researching and writing about clean energy investment and the United States’ energy policies, although recently he has been writing about integrating environmental protections into the world’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. This research has been referenced by The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times, and  TIME magazine, as well as on the World Resource Institute’s blog. 

Passionate about both policy and the environment, Jaeger credits a semester interning and studying at American University in Washington, D.C., through a St. Olaf program with preparing him for the world of non-governmental organizations. He traces his interest in the environment to a climate science course he took on the Hill, a love he later rediscovered when he was exposed to climate policy.  

“In addition to the International Relations background, the D.C. experience, and the early introduction to environmental studies, St. Olaf prepared me for this career by helping me cultivate my writing skills. There are some people who are good researchers and there are others who are good writers. My advice to Oles is to try to be both — it will really make you stand out,” Jaeger says.

He also extolls the value of students continuing to explore their interests even after they graduate. Jaeger identified his own vocation in climate policy through internships at the U.S. State Department, a trade association of electric utilities, and the United Nations, among others, then he returned to academia for an M.A. in Energy, Resources, and Environment at Johns Hopkins University so that he could find a job doing what he loves in Washington, D.C. He also points out that unpaid internships can be discouraging or even impossible for students for whom this is a financial burden. In realization of this, St. Olaf’s Piper Center for Vocation and Career advises students to apply for funding to defray the cost of unpaid and underpaid internships while on the Hill.

These three alumni show the breadth of locations and vocations where environmentally inclined Oles thrive. Bringing their passion and St. Olaf’s commitment to sustainability out into the world, these recent grads are already making waves by protecting the natural world around them.