Jennifer Perkins
Jennifer Perkins suits up for a lift on the Wind River Canopy Crane.

“What was your favorite class?”

For graduates of the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS), few questions draw a more mischievous smile. It’s no wonder when your courses included tracking wolves in Yellowstone or rock-scrambling through the Cascades.

Yet in addition to the memories (and possibly a few shenanigans), these courses cultivate a variety of skills and passions that often lead to unexpected careers—sometimes even within a few steps of SEFS. For Jennifer Perkins, who graduated in 2011, she found a great opportunity as the program coordinator for the University of Washington Environmental Stewardship & Sustainability Office.

Perkins is a fountain of energy and ideas about sustainability, and she credits much of that enthusiasm to her time at SEFS. “It’s funny, where I’m working now doesn’t directly relate to what I studied,” she says. “But I don’t think I’d be as passionate about sustainability if I didn’t have a background and understanding of ecosystems—how it’s all a big cycle that we need to protect.”

As an environmental science and resource management (ESRM) major, Perkins especially enjoyed the hands-on field trips. “I loved being able to walk around campus or out in the woods and know what I’m looking at when I see different trees and plants.”

Jennifer Perkins
Perkins with her hands full at Yellowstone National Park.

Several professors stand out in her memory, yet Jerry Franklin was her favorite. “He’s very passionate and knowledgeable, and he always made class fun,” she says. “I had several courses with him, and my favorite was when we went to Yellowstone and Glacier national parks for two weeks. In Glacier, a wolf ran across the road in front of us and then stopped, looked back at us and howled. We went back later and measured the paw prints.”

On a different excursion for “Spring Comes to the Cascades,” Perkins recalls a few rough-and-tumble experiences. “My raincoat took a beating in that class,” she says. “My ski pole went through my hood while sliding down a hill in the snow.”

These scrapes hardly discouraged her, and Perkins was happy not to leave her memories at SEFS too far behind at her new job.

Perkins had initially started as a student volunteer at the Environmental Stewardship & Sustainability Office in April 2010, and then after graduation joined the office full-time. In her first year and a half, she’s been able to implement a host of new sustainability projects around campus—and with a growing team of support. “It’s been really cool. When I started there, we had 1.5 full-time staff. We now have 3.5 full-time staff, and anywhere from five to 12 students working with us during any quarter.”

One of the most exciting initiatives they’re working on, she says, is the Green Office Certification program, which rates buildings and departments around the school for how sustainably they’re operating. Criteria include such categories as whether printers are set to double-sided print, or if there’s a compost bin in the kitchen. To participate, offices can fill out the survey online and can get certified at bronze, silver or gold. The program has been under way for about a year now, and recognition includes a certificate and letter, a profile on their website, and promotion in their newsletter and social media (and of course all the benefits of a sustainable office operation!).

The early success of the Green Office Certification program helped sprout a similar concept for laboratories, which Perkins says they hope to launch in January or February 2013.

Another project in the works is creating a sustainability map for campus. Inspired in part by frequent questions about where to find compost bins, the map will additionally highlight recycling outlets, bike-repair stations and bike parking, and a variety of other sustainability resources and facilities—all in one handy location. The plan is to have the map ready in April, first in a digital form, and perhaps later with print options.

At the heart of each of these projects is student involvement, says Perkins. “A lot of our programs give students the opportunity to learn about our campus and get some experience to use in their professional careers.”

Field work on the Olympic Peninsula.

Harnessing student power has helped Perkins and her office greatly expand their coverage and connections. “There’s so much sustainability work going on here,” she says, “but there hasn’t been a centralized place to find information. That’s the role our office trying to fill.”

And if you are looking to get involved, Perkins says the best first step is to come in and talk to their team and learn about what’s already going on around the university, and where there might be good opportunities waiting for willing hands. “If we can’t get you started doing something in our office, we can probably connect you with the right resources on campus.”

You can also visit their newly redesigned website, which is loaded with useful resources and links. Check out the Campus Sustainability Fund, which is run by students—and for students—to support and encourage a variety of sustainability activities, from building green walls to screening environmental films. Browse the “Sustainability Snapshots” to learn about more interesting projects going on around the school (or submit your own for others to read about and emulate). Or sign up to follow their office on Facebook or Twitter and see different departments and fun facts highlighted each week.

Options abound, so learn more and get involved today!

Photos © Jennifer Perkins.