We spoke with Mulkerin about her internship, balancing the responsibilities of graduate school, and how to stay hopeful in challenging times.
Tell us about your IPSS assignment.
I’m working with Valley Verde, which is a small nonprofit focused on urban agriculture and expanding food security, particularly to members of the San Jose community who are multi-ethnic. They try to focus on fruits and vegetables that are not readily available at the grocery stores and ones that are of cultural importance to the diverse community that San Jose is.
How has your immersion in this work added to your degree program?
It means becoming a part of the work you’ve studied. You’re part of the organization. I feel like I’m really part of the team—I’m applying the skills I’ve learned during graduate school to the organization and I’m really seeing the results and getting feedback.
One of the things I’m working on for this internship is developing a cost-benefit analysis related to water in San Jose. Because of the cost of water and the limitations on water use there, we’re asking, “Is it cost efficient for people to be gardening in their backyards, or what steps could people take to make it more cost efficient—such as capturing water throughout the year—so that in the summer when there are drought restrictions on water you’re still able to water your vegetables and not lose all the work of spring planting?” That research is something I could not have done before pursuing this degree. It’s still a little intimidating to figure out how to do it, but Middlebury has given me the resources and support I think I need to hopefully complete this project.
Has anything surprised you in your field experience at Valley Verde?
It’s a really small organization, but what has surprised me is the hard work and determination of the employees. They have a lot to juggle and, like most employees of a nonprofit, they have to work really hard with limited resources a lot of the time. It makes you work harder, but you make sure the work you hand in is better—you want to make sure you’re not letting anyone down, so that is really motivating in a lot of ways.
How did your experiences in the Peace Corps help steer you toward the Middlebury Institute?
Definitely my time in the Peace Corps made me interested in international environmental policy particularly, which is a focus of the Middlebury Institute. When I was in Senegal, there was a lot of plastic everywhere and I learned during my time there that the United States was shipping our “recycled” plastics to Senegal, and they don’t have the resources or the waste management systems in place to handle their own waste, let alone the United States’s waste. So learning that kind of opened my eyes to say “this needs to stop now—we need policies to stop these things from happening and improve our environment.” I realized how urgent the need was to protect the environment and I believe policy is the best way to do that, so that’s why I chose this degree program.
How do you find balance among the many demands of graduate school, including academics, professional experience, and social activities?
It’s something I’ve had to work on throughout my graduate degree, but I think it’s really important. The number one thing I value is shutting off entirely on the weekends—giving my brain a chance to shut off, to read books that I enjoy on different topics other than what I’m studying. And if you can’t do both days, do at least one and go for a bike ride, eat ice cream—do all the fun things. You still have to prioritize people in your life, making sure you’re spending time with them and making those connections with the people that you love and care about. If you look back one day and realize your head was always in the computer, you’re going to miss those things.
What gives you hope for the future?
Some days—I won’t lie—it doesn’t feel like there’s much hope, especially as a young person when you’re studying about the destruction of the environment and all these things. But at the same time, people wouldn’t study international environmental policy if there wasn’t hope for it, so having other students in the classroom means there are other people working toward change, even if you’re not seeing it right now. It’s going to come, and it’s going to keep coming because more and more generations are interested in peace and protecting the environment and in equity and inclusion. There’s people fighting every day for it, so even when it feels like we’re just not going to make it, first of all, that’s no way to live, and second, why would I doubt all my peers who are working so hard? I think there is hope and I look forward to maybe 20 years from now when we can look back and say, “Wow, that was a tough time, but we did the right things, stuck together, and did it.”
Now in his fourth semester of the International Policy and Development program, McDonnaugh is gaining professional experience with a leading aid organization while exercising his lifelong passion for service.