Alumni Share: Experiences in the Environmental Sector

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Podcast Transcript


Shabnam:  Welcome to the Boren Around the World podcast, a podcast by the National Security Education Program for Boren awardees, language lovers and federal service enthusiasts. In today’s episode we I'll be speaking with Dr. Bill Schaedla. Bill is a 2001 Boren Fellow to Thailand. He is also a former Peace Corps volunteer and a Fulbright Scholar. He teaches ecology, natural resource management and environmental justice at a Native American college run by the U.S Bureau of Indian Affairs in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is particularly interested in the functionality of environmental treaties, and the prevention of transnational environmental crimes. Thank you for joining us today Bill!

Bill:             My pleasure, I’m glad to be here.

Shabnam:  So, to start us off, what drives your passion for environmental justice and environmental trade?

Bill:             I think I came into that in the way a lot of people come into ecology or environmental sorts of issues. It comes from a childhood spent outside, doing things in the environment and one thing sort of led to another as I pursued my education. I got options to travel and go places and exercise some of those interests and they sort of snowballed from there.

Shabnam:  Have your experiences as a Boren or a Fulbright scholar or a Peace Corps volunteer – how have these things reinforced your desire to work in environmental justice and environmental trade?

Bill:             Absolutely, absolutely. The other part of my childhood that plays into my interests was doing a lot of traveling when I was younger. Getting the fellowships and the opportunities to go abroad with the Peace Corps and Fulbright, the Boren, they allowed me to sort of assemble the interests into a collective arrangement. Going and living for three years in Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer led very directly to the Fulbright and the Boren afterwards, which led to a lot of my career choices subsequently.

                   You have a wide range of experiences working in the nonprofit sector, the federal sector and also academia. Can you talk a little bit about each of those experiences?

Bill:             Certainly. I guess chronology might be in order. I grew up in the Albuquerque area where I am now, did my undergraduate degree at the University of New Mexico, and then while I was there, I learned from one of my undergraduate mentors about his background as a Peace Corps volunteer, he worked in Ecuador, and he subsequently built that into a pretty robust research program, and I though “wow this is amazing, I hadn’t considered that this was an option for me.” With his encouragement I applied to the Peace Corps after I graduated and ended up working for three years at a national park in Thailand, developed some very nice professional and academic ties in the country, and capitalized on those when I came back to the United States to do my PhD studies. I ended up not actually spending a lot of time in the United States, but then through fellowships, doing things remotely for a research station in Thailand, that was of course with the Fulbright and the Boren. When I completed my degree, I had gotten married in Thailand and was interested in staying here. My wife was also a Fulbright scholar, she had done her graduate work in the United States but had to return to Southeast Asia because of visa requirements. So, I started looking around for work, and I ended up finding an opportunity with a small at the time, but very ambitious NGO that was courting USAID involvement in wildlife trade issues. That NGO, which is now known as the Freelance Foundation Actually was instrumental in setting up the first WEN, or wildlife enforcement networks, in the world, again with USAID’s support. Those sorts of things grew out of each other organically, and then I helped with the initial inception of this wildlife enforcement network, but then went on to work with the World Wildlife Fund in Thailand, and then with another organization called Traffic, which deals with global wildlife trade issues, and I was based in Southeast Asia in Malaysia at that point. One thing after another, as I got older, my wife decided it was finally time to get her U.S citizenship, we had a young daughter that we wanted to expose to America at that point, my parents were getting older, so I was fortunate enough to find work at that point in the United States, working with this travel college, the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, which is where I’m based now. I’m finding a lot of overlap in the issues, of course Native American issues are treaty oriented, and there’s an awful lot of natural resources, U.S government to State government to tribal governments interactions involved in that, so that’s where the program I’ve designed and am administrating comes in.

Shabnam:   What have been some of the challenges in working in this kind of environment with treaties, with different communities around environmental trade?

Bill:             Well the big ones are that the arrangements aren’t always put together with all the stakeholders involved, so looking back on Peace Corps to wildlife trade related stuff in Southeast Asia, there are an awful lot of people dependent on forests for livelihoods in those environments, and they don’t always get consulted when the arrangements are being made, or the agreements are being promulgated, so national laws may or not include them, may or may not be easily modified afterwards, so when I moved from the wildlife enforcement network that I described into the world wildlife fund, a lot of what I ended up doing was going back and working with the Thai government, my staff ended up working with the That government on getting communities access to things like non-timber forest products, or the ability to use out of their whole surroundings sustainably without violating national laws. Obviously that sort of stuff applies back here in the United States as well. We have State and Federal laws regarding wildlife use, often times those are against traditional use by native communities here in the U.S, so there’s a constant sort of negation and re-negotiation process that happens in these settings, and it’s been really rewarding to be part of that, because I think I ended up straddling several sides of this issue over time.

Shabnam:  Since you’ve worked a lot in several different sectors, like with the government and a nonprofit, and now with – you’re working at a college, what’s it been like transitioning between these different sectors?

Bill:             I’d be a liar if I said it had always been a smooth process. I think the only thing that I would observe on that is that it’s – you start out with something like a Boren fellowship, or a scholarship, and you have to be very clear headed in the way you’re presenting and thinking about your professional focus for the essays and the panelists and then when you move into the foreign work environment you start doing things. That’s all very good, but most of the time, I think people's careers don't play out the way they originally anticipated. You might have a pretty firm picture of what you want going into the fellowship, but then as you're completing - other doors have opened, other things have happened, and some of these things may be totally outside of your control. For example, I've watched federal agencies change focus, I've seen priorities changed with different administrations in the U.S government, and those have necessarily required sort of looking around for other ways to exercise my interests or my skills, and in relation to that I'll give a good example. When the ASEAN wildlife enforcement network was starting it was under George Bush's presidency. There was a lot of handwringing at that point because people were worried that environmental issues wouldn't take such a high priority, but it turned out that there were a number of prominent Republican Senators who saw wildlife trade and wildlife law enforcement as an issue with that point that's very much one of the reasons why we have these wildlife enforcement networks now. I think the take-home message from my side would be that you just have to see what's going on and be aware of these different shifts and priorities and be willing to make some adjustments in your own thinking.

Shabnam:  So what advice would you give somebody who is interested in working in environmental issues in government in particular but might feel discouraged because of political climates in general?

Bill:             Again, there is always going to be room for environmental work, and it's not necessarily going to be the same sort of work as you read about on the internet or the things that are allotted in documentaries or the things that you necessarily got into the field to do, but if you’re patience and you're willing to explore options and in different areas or potentially in areas you hadn't considered before, something will open. These are such important issues for our time and it's not as though they're going to go away or they're going to be closed down completely by any administration or any shifting set of government priorities.

Shabnam:  And how would one remain flexible when hiring might you know be put on pause?

Bill:             I had to be a little create, I had initially thought that in relation to the Boren in particular, that I'd move directly toward a federal position, well some of the positions that I had been targeting weren’t open and I wasn't able to make inroads in those areas, but I started asking about fulfilling the Boren and service clause through the position I was in and I got a pretty positive response because you know usually I think the people in the agencies and the people who are working in these areas are very aware of the hurdles that come from them. I was able to help work on this USAID awarded project and fulfill the service clause that way. Now, one thing that did not get me was preferential federal hiring after the process was over, because I have been working essentially as a contractor, but again I think persistence pays in these situations, you can come back around in to them, especially by developing contacts with people and contacts within agencies and if there's an area where you want to be, definitely keep at it.

Shabnam:   Are there any additional thoughts you would like to share about your experience in the field for awardees who might be interested in pursuing a similar path?

Bill:             Outside of what I've already noted, I would say get out there and make yourself present. I think that's something that most of the Boren fellows and Scholars do fairly intuitively, you don't get a fellowship unless you're reasonably willing to present yourself, but don't be afraid to write to people, don't be afraid to make contacts within agencies even if there's not a direct opening at the time, a good example would be if you are interested in working on water issues or climate change issues, make sure you've gotten out there and participated as much as possible in things that the agencies are doing. There's lots of online stuff, there's lots of contact information out there for people and my experience has been that if you're friendly and persistent, you will get a response eventually, even if it's simply “we don't have any openings right now but I'll see what happens” and some folks I know have actually managed to get in and get jobs on the back of these sorts of cold calls or these sorts of overtures to people within agencies.

Shabnam:   Thank you so much Bill! You’ve been listening to the Boren around the world podcast. If you haven't yet, go to Spotify to subscribe, rate and view this podcast. If you're interested in participating in the podcast, email with “Boren Podcast” in your subject line. Join me soon for another episode. Thank you for listening!

In this episode, our host, Program Officer Shabnam Ahmed, will discuss the field of environmental justice and trade with Dr. Bill Schaedla. Dr. Bill Schaedla will discuss his experiences working in the federal and nonprofit sectors alongside academia. Bill was a former Boren Fellow to Thailand and was also formerly a Peace Corps volunteer and Fulbright Scholar.