Kent State University’s Environmental Studies Program gains renewed momentum after the pandemic pause.

By Jan Senn

It’s been almost 10 years since geography professor David Kaplan, PhD, first proposed the idea of starting an interdisciplinary environmental studies major at Kent State. Now it’s one of the fastest-growing majors at the university, with a group of enthusiastic and motivated students and alumni prepared to address the environmental issues facing our world. The following observations are from three environmental studies events this year.

Environmental Studies Logo

August 18, 2023
ENVS Opening Meeting
Room 302, McGilvrey Hall
3 p.m.

Matthew Arkwright, a junior in the Environmental Studies Program (ENVS), is looking for his nametag. It’s among a couple hundred labels spread out on a table outside Room 302, McGilvrey Hall. He’s showed up to attend the program’s opening meeting for all environmental studies majors and minors during this first week of classes in the 2023 Fall Semester.

“I like to stay updated on the program,” Arkwright says, noting that he’s come to the opening meeting for the past two years (although his first year, everybody had to wear masks due to Covid). “Every single time, there are new minors being introduced, new classes you can substitute for others, new activities.”

The large number of nametags on the table reflects the steady growth of the environmental studies major at Kent State University. Located in the Department of Geography at the College of Arts and Sciences, it officially began with 30 students in August 2017 and has grown to 265 students (230 majors and 35 minors) in August 2023.

“Over time it’s just been progressing, and more and more people have been getting into it,” Arkwright says. “And the more people get into it, the more activities there are, so that’s perfect.”

A native of Lake Milton, Ohio, Arkwright says that when he graduated high school, “I was kind of confused as to where to go and what to study. I made a list and checked off everything I liked doing. And I realized that some of my favorite things were just to be in nature and hike. And I was always interested in science and the political aspect of trying to solve problems.

“Then I found this major,” he says. “When I first started, the program was still relatively new, and I immediately fell in love with it. All the teachers have been so nice, and you get one-on-one time with them when you need it. The classes are more like having fun, doing labs and just enjoying yourself overall.”

“I want to do something that actually makes a change in the environment.”

—Matthew Arkwright, junior environmental studies major

Arkwright says that after graduation, he would like to get into a government program that makes policies to help address environmental issues. “I want to do something that actually makes a change in the environment,” he says. “Policies help make that possible. And, as more technology is invented, you need more people to understand the environment and how it works.”

As Arkwright and other students in the program head into the lecture hall, they pause to scan the room’s tiered seating, then head up or down to reach an open spot.

Dave Kaplan environmental studies class

David Kaplan, PhD, director of the Environmental Studies Program, welcomes students in Room 302, McGilvrey Hall, to the program's opening meeting of fall semester. Photo credit: Rami Daud


David H. Kaplan, PhD, director of the Environmental Studies Program, stands at the front of the room, looking at the rows of students with a broad smile on his face.

A professor in the geography department since 1995, he was honored with a Distinguished Teaching Award by the Kent State Alumni Association in 2018. Kaplan is well-known nationally and internationally for his work in political and urban geography. He recently was named a fellow of the American Association of Geographers in recognition for his significant contributions to advancing geography, which include serving as a past president of the association. He is also editor-in-chief of the Geographical Review and editor of National Identities.

Kaplan says he brought the idea of an environmental studies major to Kent State after taking a summer term off in 2014 to teach some classes at the University of Oregon. There, he recalls, he noticed that all his students were majoring in environmental studies—and they were all great students. He learned how the program had started and how successful it had been in attracting students. And not just in Oregon—environmental studies now is among the most popular majors across the country.

“Since I’d often been in positions like undergraduate coordinator in the geography department, I was always worried about enrollment,” Kaplan says. “Because geography is what we call a ‘discovery major.’ In the United States, at least, you don’t have many people who come in [as first-year students] wanting to be geography majors. I thought anything we could do to improve our number of majors would be a good thing.

“When I came back to Kent, I talked with Mandy Munro-Stasiuk, PhD, the chair of the geography department at the time [now dean of the College of Arts and Sciences] and asked, ‘Why don’t we think about doing an environmental studies major at Kent State?,’” Kaplan says. “I thought it would be a good interdisciplinary major. So, we reached out to other science and social science departments to form a committee and work out a curriculum. It took us about three years to get the whole thing going.”

Kaplan says one of his colleagues, Chris Post, PhD, a geography professor at Kent State Stark, was interested in creating an environmental studies program there, too. “He was excited to partner with us, so we got Stark involved,” adds Kaplan. “The application that we sent over to the Board of Regents was for a two-campus program from the beginning.”

Warm welcome

This day, as the program’s seventh year begins, Kaplan addresses his current cohort of students.

“Welcome to environmental studies,” he says. “I hope you found the room okay; I hope you found the building okay. To all the first-year students out there, welcome to Kent State.”

Kaplan gives an overview of the program, including information about the curriculum, electives, advising, education abroad, internships, activities, clubs and other opportunities.

“I try to make this as easy a program as I can,” he tells the students. “Not easy in terms of the courses, but easy in terms of being able to do what you want to do and also being able to understand how to graduate when you want to graduate.”

“I try to make this as easy a program as I can. Not easy in terms of the courses, but easy in terms of being able to do what you want to do.”

—David Kaplan, PhD, director, Environmental Studies Program

According to Kaplan, one thing that makes the environmental studies major special is its interdisciplinary nature, which includes both natural and human aspects related to the environment. It’s a social science degree that looks at how humans influence and are influenced by the environment. (In this way, it differs from environmental science, which focuses mostly on the technical aspects of various environmental issues.)

“So, [in this program] you’ll understand how the environment works from a natural science and also a social science point of view,” he says. “By social science, I mean you’ll understand issues of policy, issues of communication, issues of education—and be able to impart some of this environmental knowledge to the larger public. That is really what a lot of students who major in environmental studies are most interested in doing, although there are many other things you can do as well.”


Dave Kaplan Teaching

David Kaplan, PhD, goes over a list of electives available to environmental studies students. Photo credit: Rami Daud

Another plus, as Kaplan sees it, is the program’s flexibility, which includes a long list of classes that can fulfill the required social science electives—such as courses in architecture, economics, English, fashion design and merchandising, geography, peace and conflict studies, philosophy, paralegal studies, political science, recreation, park and tourism management, and sociology.

Kaplan also mentions opportunities to pursue a double major or add a minor. He assures the students that, with a few exceptions, all the classes offered in the program allow them to waive prerequisites. “That’s the essence of the program and that’s what [the other departments] agree to do,” he says. “You’ll have to contact the department or instructor and say you’re an environmental studies student and they will let you in.” If a problem arises, he says, “get me involved right away. Here’s my email. I’ll do everything possible to make it work for you.”

Speaking of emails, Kaplan tells the students that besides the program website, the best way to get information about the program is to watch for his emails and keep them in a special folder to refer to later. “I will never send you junk emails,” he says. “I will send you stuff related to internship opportunities, curriculum substitutions, and things that will be useful for you as environmental studies students. When the new schedule comes out, I send you a spreadsheet that shows you when classes related to environmental studies are being offered the next semester.

“And if you have any questions at all about anything, email me right away,” he adds. “I’ll respond very quickly—probably in about 10 minutes!” Students in their second, third or fourth year laugh and nod their heads in agreement.

Guest speakers

Kaplan introduces the guests he’s invited to the meeting, and they talk about the services they offer to help students succeed.

Bryan Kline, a career advisor in the Career Exploration and Development office at Kent State, encourages students to take advantage of the help his office provides. “As Dr. Kaplan says, this is a very flexible major,” Kline says. “If you have questions about minors, majors, internships, careers, I specialize in environmental areas and work. So come and talk to me. There are flyers on that table with a QR code on the back that helps you navigate to Handshake, where you can schedule appointments with our staff for career advising, and a list of our services.

“When it comes to internships, you need things like resumés and cover letters,” he adds. “I’ll help you hone your skills in those areas. So don’t wait until you’re a senior to work on your resumé. Talk to me earlier about volunteer and study abroad opportunities you could do to add to your resumé—so in the 10 seconds an employer looks at it, they’ll choose yours out of a pile of 50.”

“Talk to me earlier about volunteer and study abroad opportunities you could do to add to your resumé—so in the 10 seconds an employer looks at it, they’ll choose yours out of a pile of 50.”

—Bryan Kline, career advisor, Career Exploration and Development

He also tells the students to take advantage of career fairs for networking and finding other internship opportunities, such as the Fall Internship, Co-op and Job Fair being held Sept. 20, in the Kent Student Center. (It was hosted online during the pandemic; this year it’s in-person.) “It’s the largest fair we do every fall,” he says. “There are going to be over 70 employers there, so come and network.”

Kaplan notes that Kline will be available in Room 417 of McGilvrey Hall every Tuesday from 12–2 p.m., making it easy for students to drop by and ask him questions. He says the room is being repurposed as a place for students to hang out, study or have group meetings. It also will be a venue for special talks and forums, many hosted by the Future Environmental Professionals Club.

Amanda Paulus-Woodyard, senior director of Community Engaged Learning, in the Center for Undergraduate Excellence at Kent State—and a 2023 recipient of the President’s Award of Distinction for advancing student success and community engagement—talks about a number of opportunities available to students. “Our office is about getting you out of the classroom and into real-world experiences to utilize the skills and the knowledge that your professors are imparting to you,” she says. “We have a variety of different programs and offerings that you can take advantage of, so you have more things to put on your resumé and concrete examples you can talk about when interviewing for a future position.”

“Our office is about getting you out of the classroom and into real-world experiences to utilize the skills and the knowledge that your professors are imparting to you.”

—Amanda Paulus-Woodyard, senior director of Community Engaged Learning

She says those offerings include volunteer service opportunities at community partner organizations throughout the region, like the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and local Metro Parks, to help with things like cleaning up the Cuyahoga River or working at community gardens. And there are volunteer opportunities with Flashes Fighting Hunger, an on-campus food pantry that recovers food from local grocery stores (mostly Trader Joe’s) and makes it available to all members of the greater Kent State community.

“We also offer the Service Leaders and Community Partner Advocates Program, where we work with you one-on-one to hear what additional skills and knowledge you’re looking to gain,” Paulus-Woodyard says. “Then we’ll match you with a community partner organization, and you’ll work with that partner for a year and get paid through Kent State University. So, it’s like a paid internship, but it’s not a lot of time commitment—typically about eight to 10 hours a week.”

She notes that they also provide alternative break trips, which are short-term, cost-effective experiences that take place over fall, winter and spring breaks. They enable students to travel and focus on a certain social issue—such as a trip that goes to Lake Mead, Nevada, that focuses on water conservation.

Student testimonials

During the opening meeting, Kaplan calls on some of the students to briefly talk about opportunities they’ve had or can offer other students.

Jenna McCrudden, a senior environmental studies major and student athlete in field hockey, talks about recently attending a five-week summer session in Florence, where she earned seven credits toward her major with tuition paid for from an athletic scholarship. “There’s a long list of scholarships that you can apply for, and for some of them you just have to write a two-page essay,” McCrudden says. “Many of them go unused because people don’t apply. The only thing I ended up paying for was my flight. If you’re a freshman or sophomore, go now. Don’t wait until you’re a senior!” 

“Many [scholarships] go unused because people don’t apply. The only thing I ended up paying for was my flight. Don’t wait until you’re a senior!” 

—Jenna McCrudden, senior environmental studies major, on taking advantage of education abroad opportunities

Joey Higgins, a sophomore environmental studies major and the current president of the student-led Future Environmental Professionals Club, invites interested students to write their name and email on the signup sheet and tells them when and where the monthly club meets. “We mostly meet to talk about different career opportunities within the environmental studies major,” Higgins says. “We partner with other clubs, especially Students for Environmental Change, to do a lot of after-school activities either on or off campus.” Past activities include participating in campus and local area cleanups, nature hikes and service projects, such as educating youth in Northeast Ohio about environmentalism.

Kathryn Burns, a senior environmental studies major, sustainability intern and former editor of the Environmental Studies Newsletter (which is written for and by environmental studies students), introduces the newsletter’s two new co-editors-in-chief: Miles Powell, a senior majoring in environmental studies with minors in political science, geography and GIS (Geographic Information System), and Andrew Shenal, a sophomore majoring in environmental studies.

“I was the last editor, so we’re planning some exciting things for this year,” Burns says. “In the past, the newsletter has published internship spotlights, alumni interviews and a lot of fun articles. This year we’re looking to [add] students, art, other news. If you’re interested in looking at the newsletters, they’re now on the environmental studies program website.”

“They’re really fantastic,” adds Kaplan, the newsletter’s faculty advisor. “We have a lot of different content you’re invited to write about, such as interviewing someone in a job, or a professor about a course. But we’re also interested in people talking about their interests, a trip they took or some issue they’re concerned about.”

As the meeting wraps up, Kaplan encourages the group to attend a picnic the program is hosting the following month as another chance to get together. Then he invites the students to head upstairs and gather in Room 417 to talk with one another and see what’s been going on.

“We’re trying to introduce more of these social events, because I think it’s so helpful to build connection,” Kaplan says. “We realized with the pandemic just how much was lost when we didn’t have that opportunity.”


April 13, 2023
ESDRI Poster Session
Kent State University Hotel and Conference Center
4 p.m.

Kyotē Youst, a senior in the environmental studies’ Integrative Senior Project class, who uses they, she pronouns, stands in front of their research poster and engages with onlookers in the crowded lobby of the Kent State University Hotel and Conference Center.

 A double major in environmental studies and psychology, Youst is among several environmental studies majors taking part in a poster session at the symposium on “Environmental Justice, Ecology & Race,” sponsored by Kent State’s Environmental Science and Design Research Institute (ESDRI) and Anti-Racism and Equity Institute.


Kyotē Youst, a senior in the environmental studies

Kyotē Youst presents a research poster at the "Environmental Justice, Ecology and Race" symposium. The poster highlights benefits of community gardens and summarizes hours of research done during the Integrative Senior Project class, the capstone course for the environmental studies major. Photo credit: Jan Senn


Attendees at the two-day symposium are mostly from Ohio and include nature conservancies, activist groups, community members, faculty, staff, undergraduate and graduate students and some non-Kent State graduate students.

The Integrative Senior Project class is the capstone course for the environmental studies major. Students in the course learn about methods of investigation and presentation in the area of environmental studies. The course culminates in a major research project developed and written by each student.

“I think the great thing about this particular class is that, first of all, students are doing their own individual research,” says David Kaplan, PhD, director of the Environmental Studies Program, as he observes the poster session. “And then this [symposium] is an opportunity for them to share that research with this larger community.”

“It’s not their final project but it’s close enough,” Kaplan adds. “Given the timing of the symposium, I feel they were ready to show the kind of work they are doing.”

Youst’s research project looks at local community gardening initiatives and why and how Kent residents participate in them. Numerous shared growing spaces exist throughout Kent, Youst notes, with each one unique in organization, operation and success. Through observation and interviews with garden organizers and participants, Youst has found that despite many potential benefits, community gardens face challenges regarding organization and consistent engagement.

Their poster, which highlights the benefits of community gardens and informs the local community of available opportunities, represents “countless hours of talking to people, doing work in the gardens, reading, trying to sort all my thoughts, and then finally trying to sum this up somehow,” Youst says. “And here it is. I’m happy with how it turned out, but there’s still so much more. [For the final project] I’ll be writing an approximately 25-page paper summarizing everything I did and how I got here.”

As a student in the Honors College, Youst also will be doing an honors project that will summarize their experience at Kent State. “I’ll be using eight to 10 artifacts of my work and then writing around them and creating a narrative of everything I’ve done,” Youst says. “This poster is certainly going to be one of them. I’m really excited to kind of paint a picture of where I started, how I meandered around all these different departments, and how I ended up very close to where I started—but with a whole different perspective.”

“My educational journey has equipped me with an expansive skillset to cultivate the collective healing, nourishment and well-being that inspires everything I do.”

— Kyotē Youst, BA ’23

To describe that meandering journey, Youst says, “I started out in outdoor recreation management, then I went to early childhood education, then I went to psychology, then I ended up in environmental studies. I had to do some navigating to figure out how to do these things that are really important to my heart, and in a way that I actually feel like I get to make an impact. A lot of it is at that grassroots level of just meeting people in the flesh in the real world, establishing those connections, and connecting the right people with each other.”

For Youst, those connections (many made through Kent State’s Community Engaged Learning program) have included work as a community partner advocate at Walls Elementary School in Kent, with the Let’s Grow Together Coalition. At the school, Youst led a reduced waste program, collecting food scraps from the school cafeteria and turning them into compost for the school’s community garden. They also worked as a community partner advocate at Let’s Grow Akron, a coalition of 30 different community gardens across Akron, and volunteered at the Thomas-Anderson Memorial Garden in Kent’s South End neighborhood.

“Now, I am exploring potential employment opportunities to dive into following my graduation in December,” Youst says. “I eagerly anticipate every forthcoming opportunity to reconnect people with Mother Earth. My educational journey has equipped me with an expansive skillset to cultivate the collective healing, nourishment and well-being that inspires everything I do. I am ever grateful for each and all of those who have helped me become who I am today.”

Four days later, on April 17, Youst again presented their poster at Kent State’s annual Undergraduate Symposium on Research, Scholarship and Creative Endeavors, held in the Kent Student Center. Youst and mentor David Kaplan won second place in the category of social science/education/public health.

Update: In November, Youst was hired as a seasonal outreach naturalist with the Summit Metroparks. “I’ll help facilitate a children's nature club at the Summit Lake Nature Center, along with other programming throughout the parks system,” Youst says. “The nature center also shares an attached community garden with Let’s Grow Akron, where we can engage with the community’s children through a variety of activities. I’ve already been helping there this semester through my connection to Let’s Grow Akron, and it is a wonderfully special space. I am so excited to take on a more substantial role with such a great local initiative!”


March 16, 2023
Career Pathways in Environmental Studies class
Room 234, McGilvrey Hall
2 p.m.

“Today we’re going to have a panel of people who work in parks,” announces David Kaplan, PhD, to the environmental studies majors who have gathered in Room 234, McGilvrey Hall, for a Career Pathways in Environmental Studies class.

The one-credit, pass-fail class (only offered in the spring) is a new addition to the major’s requirements, which were revised for the first time last year. Kaplan says he added the professional development class to get students thinking about what they want to do after college and preparing for next steps—which could include talking with career advisors, polishing a resumé and cover letters, opening a LinkedIn account and perhaps applying for graduate school.

Dave Kaplan Class

Students in the Career Pathways in Environmental Studies class learn about career options and next steps from recent grads and employers who are invited to participate in panel discussions. Photo credit: Greta Bell, BS '22

Kaplan is also inviting employers and graduates of the program, working in some aspect of environmental studies, to take part in panels related to their particular area and to answer questions from students in the class.


David Kaplan, PhD

David Kaplan, PhD, developed the new Career Pathways in Environmental Studies class to help prepare environmental studies majors for life after college. Photo credit: Greta Bell, BS '22

Today’s panel includes Pam Machuga, a park ranger at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park who works in community engagement and building relationships with underserved populations; Matthew “Woody” Woodyard, BA ’21, an interpretive naturalist at Summit Lake Nature Center, located near a marginalized urban community; and Bob Lange, natural areas steward at Portage Park District, whose job involves controlling invasive plants, documenting rare plant species and monitoring stream quality.

Machuga and Lange have hired environmental studies students as interns. Woodyard, who was a non-traditional student with children (and is married to Amanda Paulus-Woodyard, senior director of Community Engaged Learning), interned with Machuga while he was a student at Kent State.

As the panel members talk about how they got their current jobs and what they do, the students in the class ask questions.

One student wants to know what exactly is meant by “interpretation.”

“People have different definitions for it,” Machuga says, “but mine would be education with inspiration. How can we facilitate that connection to the parks so that the next generation has access to and loves their parks as much as we do? National parks are voted in by Congress and could be taken away just as easily. Interpreters help people find relevance in their parks so that they care enough to help preserve them for the next generation.”

“Interpreters help people find relevance in their parks so that they care enough to help preserve them for the next generation.”

—Pam Machuga, park ranger, Cuyahoga Valley National Park

“When I’m doing an interpretive program, I’m trying to help folks foster their own connection to the resource,” Woodyard adds. “That involves meeting people where they are, reading the audience, asking questions to find out what they know, fostering curiosity, appreciation, mindfulness and just really connecting to nature.”

Another student wants to know the importance of getting a Certified Interpretive Guide certificate when applying for naturalist positions.

“It’s great training,” Woodyard says. “You’re learning skills you might not be taught in the classroom: how to build a concise, consecutive program to present to the public, how to figure out your target audience. And I think it does bolster your resumé. My advice is if you can get in somewhere that wants you to get the certificate, push for it and see if they can fund it for you. Because it’s not a cheap course.”

When it comes to finding a job, all the panelists share advice.

“Networking is huge in this field,” Woodyard says. “It is a challenging field to get into. So, the more people you know, the more you’re putting your work out there, the better chances you have.”

“It is a challenging field to get into. So, the more people you know, the more you’re putting your work out there, the better chances you have.”

—Matthew “Woody” Woodyard, BA ’21

Lange agrees. “Keep those connections strong and don’t get discouraged,” he says. “Things change. I once lost out on a park biologist position, but I kept in touch and in a couple years the person who got the position was gone.”

“Every summer, if you’re able, do an internship, get a job or volunteer,” Machuga says. “And put everything you’ve done on your resumé. When I look at resumés, it’s the experience that jumps out at me. If you’re a student or recent graduate and you want to work for the National Park Service, you can apply for Pathways Programs [which offer current students and recent graduates paid internships and streamlined hiring programs to explore federal career opportunities].”

“I have a couple kids at home, so I had to stay local,” Woodyard adds. “But while you’re young, if an opportunity to move and get a job is available, take it. Take that $12 per hour job where housing is paid for. You might struggle at the time, but it’s going to be worth it for the experience.”

The last student to ask a question wants to know what park staff do in the winter.

“Put our coat and gloves on,” Woodyard says. “We program through the winter. Maybe not as much, but we definitely get out there—whether it’s snowshoeing or winter campfires or a hike in the snow.”

Career Possibilities in Environmental Studies

Possible careers with an environmental studies major include:

Environmental consultant

Environmental educator

Public relations specialist

Environmental journalist

Fundraiser for environmental causes

Environmental attorney

Sustainability specialist

Environmental policy analyst

Environment/conservation planner

Environmental specialist

Natural resources manager

Park ranger

Click here to download a PDF with details on environmental studies career possibilities.  

View a video presentation of David Kaplan, PhD, introducing the environmental studies major below:


POSTED: Thursday, November 30, 2023 07:14 AM
Updated: Friday, December 8, 2023 07:21 AM