by Meike Siegner
Pictures: Salina Abraham
Salina Abraham has been an active member with IFSA since 2015 and currently serves at Statutes Councillor with IFSA International. As part of her Environmental Science and Resource Management Program at University of Washington (Seattle) she chose to spend one year in the Netherlands to study Economics. For the Tree News she reported on her exchange experience in Europe and the insights she gained by combining both economic and natural resource management perspectives in her studies.
Can you provide us insights into why you chose to pursue exchange studies at a European University?
About a year ago, when I was three months away from my graduation in Environmental Science and Resource Management at University of Washington, I decided that I wanted to double major in Economics. That was a big decision for me that arose out of my interest in studying the interface between people and the environment. I always knew that I wanted to learn Economics at some point, but I had imagined it as a hobby – something fun to do during retirement. However, based on my desired career direction (environmental policy), I quickly realized it made sense to understand Economics earlier rather than later. Economics is the study of how humans manage resources and I felt like understanding the development of this discipline would be important. Even though it has a limited focus on natural resources, I felt that knowing the logic, frameworks, and models would be useful in my future career in environment and sustainability field.
I also knew that I didn’t want to study it in America. Mostly, because I did not want to learn conservative, classical economic thought and the Netherlands was attractive to me because of their social policies. I had thought that, for the most part, you can’t come to a country with a very progressive social safety net and then teach, for example, “taxes are really bad!.” I wanted to explore the ways that economics could contribute to these social policies. So, I was hoping that a different political environment would result in a less conservative and potentially more progressive economics learning environment, which could, hopefully, translate into a different take on natural resource economics as well. Those were the thoughts that led to my decision to pursue my exchange studies at Tilburg University, in the town of Tilburg with around 200.000 inhabitants. They allowed me to complete my final year before graduation abroad, which tends to be rare.
And did you feel that the different economic environment in the Netherlands influenced the way the subject was taught?
Well, in general the economics literature is very conservative. You can’t escape it but you can have a professor who understands the differences in application and highlights the limitations of theoretical models, that is its application in reality versus practice by pointing out limits when it comes to applying economic models and frameworks in real-life situations. I’ve seen professors identify the points of breakdown for frameworks more here than in the United States, which is refreshing. However, my disappointment with the program here was primarily that it was a classic Business and Management School and there was a huge shortage in terms of any environmental application to economics, or a perspective that would combine human economic behavior and the environment. I started out with one environmental econ course and I ended up dropping it because it is the same material that we had already covered in an environmental science major as an undergrad. One thing that I did fall in love with though, outside the standard courses, was taking development economics, which I truly love. Development Economics is essentially the study of poverty and how it can be relieved.
One course I’m taking this quarter looks at the power of randomized control trials to determine the effectiveness of certain poverty interventions in many fields. I found this really appealing as it finally allowed to me to quantitatively study livelihoods. The exploration of livelihoods is what I felt I was missing when studying only environmental science and what drove me to economics. I absolutely loved having this class and dissecting literature on the influence of microcredits on individual decision-making in agriculture or energy use. Bringing the math and quantitative data into the questions that we discuss in environmental science but in very ‘fuzzy’ terms was exhilarating for me. Taking that science beyond the soil and trees and into the people was something I loved.
With respect to the environmental and sustainability discourse, did you experience any difference between Europe and the United States?
The biggest shock for sure is lifestyle differences. Coming from the U.S., I learned, for example, how to live in a smaller space and I started to bike a lot. I miss my car in some ways but my carbon footprint has changed radically here with an excellent public transportation system. You can’t escape a lifestyle change when coming to Europe. The food aspect is also very interesting. There are so many local stores, farmer’s markets and bakery’s, centrally located, which I had not experienced before that. In addition to lifestyle, I noticed a greater international awareness among people that seems to be absent in the United States. People in Europe know about a variety of political systems, events on the news, and understand a sense of interconnectedness largely because of the interactions within the European Union. This type of diverse global knowledge doesn’t exist in the States in the same way. In the US, the average person does not know about global politics. Whereas here they do and it is integrated into media, and as a result, discussions and I think that this has an influence towards the acceptance of environmental issues and sustainability as a whole. Simply because people recognize the interconnectedness of different countries and people and the impact of various countries and policies on the other. Maybe it is a European Union thing but in that sense I found that there is a general openness. Even if the average person does not know a lot about the environment, they may still digest the issue in a different way than the average American would.
How did you experience being involved with IFSA at the European level?
I regularly attended the coffee hours and I oversee the Northern European Region as councilor during the past five months. What is shocking to see is how much larger the organization is in Europe and how very well established. There is history in LC’s that didn’t exist with IFSA for me in North America. In my home university, we are only two years old. I also think that there seems to be a greater variety in forestry practices in Europe which is reflected in the organization. It seems that there is a lot more to discuss in Europe with respect to forest management history and practice in different countries, compared to North America. You can definitely see a greater exchange in historical and technological knowledge and ideas in Europe.
With this exchange experience in your pocket, what are your plans for the near future?
My plan is to graduate in the next few weeks and finish my thesis. I am still undecided whether I want to pursue a job at this point. I may start my masters at the Wageningen University in a few months. I could easily imagine staying longer in Europe and Wageningen University represents exactly what I wanted to study when I went on this exchange. I would look at doing a focus on Economics within the Environmental Science masters. This exchange has been great in providing me with basic economic knowledge and a different context for application. Now I want to get it from a focus on the environment, people and agriculture. I think that’s the right next step. It is just a matter if I will do it this September or in a few years. Either way, the year ahead will be full of learning.
Meike is the current Head of Publications with IFSA and the founder and Editor in Chief of the Tree News. She can be reached under meike.siegner.ifsa(a)gmail.com