Welcome to our Alumni Profile series. Each month we’ll catch up with at least one HECUA alumni, and see how their time in a HECUA classroom influenced their career goals, their life in the community, and their pursuit of continued education. If you or a friend would like to participate in this series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. For the final weeks of October we were lucky enough to connect with Fall 2014 New Zealand alum Jonah Seifer. Jonah graduated from Colorado College just this year, with a degree in Environmental Physics. Read on for how Jonah’s work on his Independent Study Project in New Zealand led to his current job with the Colorado College State of the Rockies program.
HECUA: How did you find out about HECUA? What motivated you to take part in a HECUA program?
Jonah Seifer: Somewhat of a funny story – I started looking into study abroad programs in the winter of my sophomore year. Through various study abroad fairs and conversations with alumni of each program, I narrowed down on four excellent programs that I thought would be a good fit: ISDSI in Thailand, DIS in Copenhagen, the Arava Institute in Israel, and HECUA in New Zealand. After deciding a large university was not the right environment for what I was seeking, I applied to the program in Thailand and was surprisingly rejected, partially on account of having a background in physics. I applied for and was admitted to the program in Israel, however, just one month before I was scheduled to travel, the intensifying episode of armed conflict in the area resulted in a series of bombings near my program. Frightened and prone to future worry, my family and I decided to go back to the drawing board. The remaining candidate was HECUA, so I refreshed my memory on the contents of the program and applied with only 3 weeks before the start of the semester. A swift admission yielded much relief, however, I had about 20 days to pack for a different hemisphere and figure out what I was getting myself into. I realize this isn’t the most inspiring story of motivation and certainty in my ambitions, but in retrospect I was just scrambling to make something work and it ended up working more fabulously than I could have planned or expected.
HECUA: What were your expectations of the program going in? Were those expectations met?
JS: Given the haste with which I applied, packed, and left the US, my expectations were few and vague. I knew New Zealand was a place of extraordinary beauty, that I would be studying the environmental costs of intensive agriculture in a compact island-nation, and that I would also have the opportunity to learn about indigenous culture in Aotearoa. These all proved to be understatements on a grand scale.
The natural beauty of New Zealand defies the descriptive powers of the English language, so I won’t attempt to discuss that.
We did not simply “study the environmental costs of agriculture” but saw, smelled, and tasted them too. Understanding the extreme contention surrounding freshwater quality, economic productivity, recreational value of swimmable waterways, and traditional water values in indigenous culture ultimately generated a new and vivid understanding of the age-old environment-development paradox. This understanding of sound resource management as a mediator between essential economic development and the vital necessity of healthy ecosystems came to guide the remainder of my undergraduate study back in Colorado.
What surprised me most, however, was the chance to deeply explore the basic tenets of Tangata whenua cosmology, spirituality, and the intimate sense of place and purpose promulgated by an extensive system of genealogy. This provided a context that amplified the immense value of just and equitable natural resource management and, on a very personal level, it also enabled me to discover something I didn’t know I was missing.
HECUA: Is there something you learned in your HECUA semester that you still use to this day? What is it?
JS: If one thing is blindingly clear after my semester with HECUA, it is that all environmental issues exist at the confluence of social, ecological, political, and economic forces. Nothing happens or exists in isolation, and it is only in the context of the “human landscape” (sociology, political science, economics etc) that environmental (mis)management can truly be comprehended. This sounds like the lofty, philosophical musings of a romantic undergraduate, but I believe the continual application of this perspective as a basis for the study of natural resource problems has enabled me to learn more rapidly and more deeply than ever before.
My time at HECUA also brought a new academic passion to the forefront of my mind: indigenous natural resource rights. I spent the bulk of my undergraduate study exclusively learning how developed, western societies structure and execute environmental management. This western approach to environmental management, however, has some serious shortfalls while also completely disregarding the values, traditions, and priorities of other cultures. In learning about tribes’ struggles to control their traditional resources, I realized the immense scale of the oppression of native peoples.
On its own, this realization would have proved to be an invaluable experience, but I think the greatest benefit comes from learning how to use these moments of clarity to motivate further research and learning that would not have occurred otherwise. As a result of what I’ve seen and learned, I wrote an extensive Independent Study Project on tribal comanagement in the Whanganui River, which led to a final paper on Native American water quantity rights, which eventually grew into a 90+ page thesis on Native American sovereignty and water quality rights. This work on tribal water justice continues to this day and was almost entirely catalyzed by my experiences in New Zealand.
HECUA: What was your internship site? What projects did you work on while you were there?
JS: Hoo boy this is a good one. Chas and Peter (somehow) hooked me up with Kennedy Graham, a Member of Parliament from New Zealand’s Green Party and the party’s Spokesperson on Global Affairs. Most every day would go like this:
- Show up to the Beehive and (attempt to) casually ride elevator with famous politicians.
- Arrive at my desk across the hall from Kennedy, who is so hard working he manages to fit 48 hours of productivity into a 24 hour day.
- Ken would generally approach me around 8am and inform me of the debate that will take place on the floor of the house in 5 hours. Due to his position, relevant debates often centered on four main topics: nonviolent counterterrorism measures to take against the rising Islamic State, COP 21 (the Paris Climate Agreement), the balance between national security and personal privacy, and the referendum to modify NZ’s flag. My main task was to research the topic and the merits of the party’s position on said topic before producing high-quality reports to be used in defense of these positions on the floor of the house.
- The next 5 hours were usually a caffeine-fueled blur of research, report writing, and fact checking. Due to the short time windows and the obvious imperative of creating accurate, concise, and powerful reports, I am led to believe that nothing that takes place at a desk could be more exciting than this.
- Ken would usually return to my desk to review the information I had aggregated, usually with only an hour or so before he took to the floor.
- As the afternoon rolled around, I would have the immense pleasure of watching Ken, an articulate gentleman and true statesman, weave my research into compelling arguments that were broadcast across the floor of the house, as well as live on television. On a handful of occasions he quoted my words verbatim.
- Took notes as Prime Minister John Key addressed ISIS counterterrorism with respect to New Zealand’s duties to the UN Security Council. He’s smaller in person.
- Reported on the formation of the Islamic State’s alleged caliphate and the threat it poses to the stability of nations in the region
- Argued for the prohibition of government access to all CCTV security cameras using Benjamin Franklin’s famous quotation “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
HECUA: Do you feel like you changed as a result of the semester you spent off campus? Why or why not?
JS: I’ve touched on personal change a bit in this profile, saying I had found something in New Zealand that I didn’t know I was missing. To expand on that, I think the most succinct description of my personal growth is that I finally realized what people mean when they say they’re “spiritual, but not religious.”
This is to say I learned the value and practice of mindfulness. With practice, bus rides, daily meals, small talk with strangers, even just sitting somewhere quiet went from mundane to joyous. People are creatures of meaning and purpose, but if you can’t direct your awareness inward, most daily experiences become an entirely hollow, devoid of any real meaning except to provide contrast between the moments on your personal highlight reel and the seemingly less-important background scenes. I realize this sounds like some new-agey, idealist BS, but it’s truly changed the way I view and relate to the world around me. Today, my interactions with friends and strangers are less guarded, I’m more sensitive to my self (not myself but my self, the psychological counterpart to one’s ego), and I genuinely sense a more coherent and inextricable link between me and the natural world. This last aspect isn’t some sort of earthy-crunchy “nature is my religion” stuff either, but rather a constantly developing understanding of my personal impacts on the natural world and ways I can reduce these impacts.
HECUA: Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing now! I know that you credit your research in New Zealand with jump starting a massive research project here – tell me more about that!
JS: After spending time with Keith Woods (a field speaker for the New Zealand program) and the rest of the Ngati Rangi people, I felt compelled to focus my Independent Study Project (ISP) on how different worldviews and epistemologies influence environmental management practices, and how properly executed comanagement regimes could be highly beneficial to all managing parties. At the time, it was the most exciting piece of scholarship I had ever produced. Perhaps one of the great highlights of my time in New Zealand was receiving praise about the paper’s quality from our Tangata whenua friend and teacher, Nga.
Upon returning back to Colorado, I took a course in Environmental Management, specifically relating to America’s federal public lands. The course was the perfect complement to my study abroad, and by the end of it I had decided to pursue a concept that appeared regularly in my ISP: how do native peoples ensure their right to water resources is recognized in non-native legal systems? I wrote that final paper on Native American water rights, and my professor recognized my interest in the topic and suggested I apply for a research fellowship at an organization he directed at the time. Being somewhat dense, I politely declined, stating that I was looking for jobs in Boston that summer.
It was only after a handful of pokes and prods that I finally saw the value of the opportunity presented by the fellowship with the State of the Rockies Project. I applied and received the position, launching me on a wild journey that included field research all over the American Southwest, the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell, meetings with representatives from tribes and pueblos in Arizona and New Mexico, and even a week spent photographing these landscapes and engaging with stakeholders from the comfort of a 6-seater plane.
I eventually produced a massive report, which is now published with the Rockies Project and available online here (https://www.coloradocollege.edu/dotAsset/6a112a39-0d6d-440b-a304-4210fe61320f.pdf), that covered the state of American tribes’ rights to clean water and mechanisms with which tribes could demand even better water quality from their upstream neighbors. That report became my undergraduate thesis, and, upon its completion I was informed that one of my supervisors, the Program Coordinator of the State of the Rockies Project, would be attending graduate school the following year. I applied for and received her position toward the end of my senior year at Colorado College, and have since spent the intervening months helping students conduct research (one of which is also a HECUA alumna who is now researching tribal water justice!), organizing educational and outreach events about western water, and travelling around Colorado and the Pacific Northwest for field research.
In brief, my ISP turned into a paper for a class, which led me to a research fellowship that enabled me to write my undergrad thesis, which was essentially an expansion of my ISP. My time spent as a student research fellow with the State of the Rockies Project eventually resulted in a full time position there, so one could say my ISP resulted in a full time job.
Many thanks to Jonah for this lovely interview. We can’t wait to see what he accomplishes with State of the Rockies.
For more on HECUA’s New Zealand program abroad, click here.