Taking a sustainability degree from passion to profession

In any academic degree, the final project is the final milestone before students enter the workforce. Students and academics at the Sydney Sustainability Programme explain how its capstone is uniquely helpful to students and organisations.

ozharvest market
Kyungjin Yu and another volunteer stand outside the OzHarvest market, a unique market that sells rescued food in Sydney. Yu helped OzHarvest identify strategies to replicate the rescued food supermarket concept as part of a capstone project with the University of Sydney. Image: OzHarvest

When students in the University of Sydney’s postgraduate sustainability programme approach academic Joy Murray for advice on choosing a final year project that will help secure a good job, the response might not answer their question directly. 

“I urge them to think about what they are passionate about instead,” says Murray, who is a research fellow at the university’s Integrated Sustainability Analysis group, and capstone project coordinator for the Sydney Sustainability Programme (SSP). “For the capstone, we’ll find you a role in an industry or organisation that will support that passion.”

A postgraduate programme that offers students the option of a Masters’ degree, graduate diploma or graduate certificate, the SSP is a multidisciplinary course that spans seven fields of study ranging from Life and Environmental Sciences, Medicine, Law, and Business. 

“The capstone is about applying the theory that students have learned in the rest of the programme,” says Murray. Undertaken in the final semester, the capstone is the final step towards a Masters’ degree.

“Students find a workplace that will allow them to apply their field of study, though they can also work within the university if they have a more academic career in mind,” adds Murray. 

Students have extensive freedom to choose their project, workplace, and even academic advisor, as long as the final project meets some basic academic criteria, Murray shares. 

“The proposal must address three aspects of sustainability—that is, the economic, environmental, and social components—and must draw on at least three of the areas that they have studied in order to demonstrate a holistic understanding of the issue,” she explains. 

Apart from that, the possibilities are virtually endless. Students can either choose from a list of projects that organisations have pitched to the university, or approach an organisation of their choice; they can do their capstones in Australia or overseas, and can even work with academic advisors from outside the university if they are the best match for their research. 

The capstone is about applying the theory that students have learned in the rest of the programme.

Joy Murray, capstone co-ordinator, Sydney Sustainability Programme

A lasting legacy

One student who was able to convert a long-time passion for food waste into a capstone project is programme alumna Kyungjin Yu. 

Coming to the SSP after a career in environmental protection in South Korea, Yu says that she chose the programme to gain a “big-picture” understanding of sustainability. Soon after she arrived in Australia about three years ago, Yu began volunteering with food rescue charity OzHarvest, helping out with finance and accounting.

Yu paused her volunteering when she first enrolled in the programme in early 2016, but when it was time to choose a capstone project, “I automatically decided to work with OzHarvest”, she recalls. 

She began working with OzHarvest in March this year, just as the organisation was about to open its first ever OzHarvest market. Located in Sydney suburb Kensington, the market takes a novel approach to food waste. It is stocked with produce that is either donated or would otherwise go to waste, and adopts a “take what you need, give if you can” philosophy to buying food. 

“My capstone project was to build a sustainability strategy for a rescued food supermarket, and produce a handbook that served as a step-by-step guide to replicating this model,” Yu shares. 

This involved documenting every aspect of the supermarket’s operations from decor to volunteer activity to security; surveying 500 supermarket customers in May this year; and observing the supermarket’s operations and customers’ shopping habits for several months. 

Yu ultimately put together a 53-page document that outlines recommendations on how to set up, and successfully run, a food rescue supermarket similar to the flagship OzHarvest store. 

The document presents tips on all aspects ranging from location to decor to how volunteers can best communicate with customers. It also points out opportunities to better serve customers, including making non-English speakers feel welcome. 

Alicia Kirwan, senior business leader, OzHarvest, tells Eco-Business that Yu’s project “is an absolute legacy to our organisation, and is something that every stakeholder now reviews”.

“For us, it is a piece of history, and also guides the way for us to move forward,” adds Kirwan. 

While there are no immediate plans to set up another OzHarvest supermarket—this depends heavily on someone donating a space they can use, and the availability of a food rescue infrastructure in the vicinity—the document is a useful roadmap for future planning, Kirwan says. 

She also highlights the fact that if Yu had not approached OzHarvest, the charity would have had to rely on a volunteer to do the documentation. Given the notoriously varied and short-lived nature of volunteer commitment, “we would not have ended up with a document of nearly the same calibre as we did (if a volunteer had done the project instead of Yu)”, Kirwan says. 

For her part, Yu recalls that despite some stressful moments during the project such as dealing with an overwhelming number of customers at a time, Kirwan was always helpful and supportive. 

“I also got to learn by watching her solve issues in real life,” says Yu, adding that her academic advisor also played an important role in shaping the scope and feasibility of the project. 

“It was challenging, but it has been pretty rewarding to see that the supermarket runs better every day because of my input,” Yu says. Upon graduation, Yu’s capstone’s academic advisor offered her a research assistant job based on her work in the area of food waste. 

“The capstone is a good preview before you step out into the world and pursue a career for yourself,” Yu says.

It was challenging, but it has been pretty rewarding to see that the supermarket runs better every day because of my input.

Kyungjin Yu, alumna, Sydney Sustaniability Programme

An educational mission

While some students approach organisations they want to work with for their capstone, others might choose from a list of opportunities that companies have submitted to the SSP. 

Yao Yang, a 23-year old student who is currently doing her capstone project, found a perfect match on this list. With a background in design and marketing, Yao was surprised to see an opportunity from Sydney-based consultancy The Gaia Partnership to evaluate the greenhouse gas emissions that result from digital advertising. 

A common misconception is that only print advertising has an environmental impact due to paper use; but in reality, producing, storing, and distributing online marketing also generates emissions from electricity use by computers and servers, she explains. 

“My aim with this project is to inform marketers and customers about the extent of greenhouse gas emissions caused by social media advertising,” says Yang. “I would like to lead an attitudinal change where marketers take responsibility for their advertising, and look for solutions which maximise commercial value while reducing emissions.”

Yang’s project is ongoing, but the end result will be a set of findings and guidelines that Gaia Partnership will circulate to marketers. Throughout the process, Yang says that her workplace mentor and The Gaia Partnership chief executive officer Christopher Sewell has helped in many ways. These range from advising on greenhouse gas accounting methodologies to sharing information resources to linking her up with other experts. 

The project has allowed Yang to gain valuable skills in areas such as presentation, time management, and professional communication she says.

Sewell, meanwhile, notes that Yang’s work has benefited the company significantly, and he is “delighted at the level of detail Yang has gone to, and the due diligence of the research she has done”. 

“First, we get to understand what is going on in the wider academic world and the research they do,” he says. 

It also boosts the credibility of the consultancy, Sewell notes. People may question the validity of data on emissions and benchmarks if it comes from a private firm, but having academic research to back it up lends the organisation credibility. “So the more we point back to independent research, the better it is,” he explains. 

“It is the first time we have done this [partnership with the Sydney Sustainability Programme], and so far I’ve been delighted,” says Sewell. Not only has Yao Yang’s work been “extremely professional”, but support from the programme’s administrators has also been great, he says. 

“Initially I was a bit overwhelmed, and thought it might be labour intensive to give the student my time on top of running the business,” he recalls. “But it was very well set out, all the administrative information is easy to understand, and any queries I had were answered straightaway.” 

From passion to profession

Happy workplace mentors is a near-constant outcome of the SSP’s capstone initiative, says programme coordinator Murray. 

“They are gaining deeply researched, academically strong solutions for the challenges they face,” she notes. “They might not have had the time or academic resources to do the project themselves, so it’s helpful to have someone to do it for them.” 

At the end of their capstones, students are graded on a report outlining their experience and achievements at their workplace—the actual deliverable belongs to the workplace, it is not seen or assessed by the university—and a set of three presentations they make before, during, and at the end of their projects. 

Ultimately, it is rewarding to see students complete their projects, and move on to find work in an area that they are passionate about and well qualified in, says Murray. 

She adds: “We know we are turning out really good students, so wherever they go, the organisation is going to benefit from their work.” 

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