Alumni Profile

Alumni Profile: Kate Sullivan

Welcome to HECUA’s Alumni Profile series. Periodically, we catch up with a HECUA alum and see how their time in a HECUA classroom influenced their career goals, their life in the community, or their pursuit of continued education. If you or a friend would like to participate in this series, please email This month we are delighted to feature Kate Sullivan. Kate is a graduate of St. Olaf College with a major in biology with a focus in environmental studies. She participated in the Sustainable Agriculture, Food, and Justice program in Italy in Fall 2016.

Kate is standing in among green rolling hills beneath a cloudy sky
View from Kate’s “office” in Italy

How did you decide to study with HECUA?
I knew I wanted to study abroad in Italy and at St. Olaf there were only two other Italy programs, both heavily focused on art. I’ve taken a few classes on art, but I wasn’t looking for an art program. When I saw that HECUA’s Sustainable Agriculture, Food, and Justice in Italy had the environmental focus and a hands-on learning component, I knew it was exactly what I was looking for. The stars totally aligned and I was part of the first cohort in Fall 2016.

What was your favorite part of the program?
The hands-on learning component really drew me in. It had more of a sustainable development twist to it, rather than other environmental programs I’d seen that were more researched focused. Knowing the background and philosophy of HECUA also drew me to it. When I returned to St. Olaf, I was even able to apply my program credits from HECUA toward my environmental studies focus.

Working in the olive groves at Tenuta Barbadoa

What was most surprising to you about the experience?
The biggest surprise to me was that I am actually interested in environmental policy! Growing up, I wanted nothing to do with policy. I didn’t ever think it was for me. When I went to Italy, Riccardo (Italy program co-director) was a big part of opening my eyes to how interesting policy can be. When we started comparing European agriculture policy to U.S. agriculture policy, I fell in love with all the intricacies of policy. It changed how I thought about environmental issues.

How did your HECUA experience influence your career path or course of study?
I changed trajectory after HECUA both academically and in my career pursuits. I always knew that I wanted to do something environmental, but I didn’t have direction. Nothing was the right fit until I found HECUA.

When I cam back from Italy, I took a deep dive into policy, and that has influenced the work I do now at the Great Plains Institute. The program was really transformative for me in that way.

On a personal level, I had a lot of big takeaways too; learning how to travel on my own, being in another country, learning another language. I didn’t really speak Italian prior to studying abroad, but I learned a little bit while I was there. By the end of the program I could hold a steady conversation in Italian. That was also something I was searching for in study abroad. I wanted that extra challenge of learning a new language.

I learned a lot about myself, too. I worked on one of the farms, Tenuta Barbadoro, and the workers didn’t speak any English. It was me and five older Italians farmers. It was cool to learn how to interact with someone without using a lot of words, and to learn from them. It was fun to gain and understanding of a different culture, for example, “What does an Italian farmer have for lunch”? They (the farmers) always worried I wasn’t eating enough and would share their lunches with me. We developed a sense of camaraderie throughout the semester.

What was your biggest takeaway from your HECUA program?
While I was in Italy, and discovering that policy is actually really cool, I sat down with Riccardo to hear about this journey and how he got into this field, and that was really helpful. I stayed in touch with Riccardo during college and used him as a reference many times when I applied for jobs after graduation.

Now, I work at the Great Plains Institute as the Carbon Management and Electricity Program Assistant. The work I focus on includes a lot of collaborative regional efforts. We bring together various stakeholders from companies, NGOS, and policymakers to discuss policy issues. We try to get them in a room to facilitate discussion together and then move forward on whatever policy solutions come out of that.

I think HECUA definitely impacted not only what I studied and what I’m working on, but also my ability to interact with all of these different people. My job involves interacting with people from a variety of different perspectives. We might have different viewpoints on things, but I learned how to work with others across difference. HECUA helped with my interpersonal growth in that way too.

What advice do you have for students considering HECUA?
DO it! I have no regrets. It was a phenomenal experience. Do it and go in with a good attitude. Have no expectations and be open to anything.

One example of being open that comes to my mind is from my time in Italy. My roommate and I became good friends and together we met local people from around Montespertoli. We often left our weekends open and did not plan anything.

I’m a big rock-climber and it’s something I’ve been doing for years. I mentioned this to a local Italian friend and found out his dad is a huge rock-climber too. So, they invited us to go rock climbing with them. We then started going climbing with them on the weekends. It ended up leading to this phenomenal and totally unexpected experience and point of connection within the community. Based on that, my other piece of advice would be to engage with people while abroad because you never know what could happen!

Rock climbing in Italy

To read more Alumni Profiles, visit the HECUA blog and search for “Alumni Profile.” Many thanks to Kate for taking the time to chat with us about her experience in Italy. 

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