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JYA Journal—Notes From Abroad

Learning the Lingo in Geneva

By Britni Steingard ‘09

JYA Journal with:

Maggie Mertens ’09

Cheri Hardy ’09

Anna Newman ’09

I have studied French language, literature and culture since age 6, thanks to my hometown’s French immersion program. But I am not a French major. I am a biology major with a minor in environmental science and policy (if I can complete all the requirements). 

I had thought about a double major—bio and French—but ES&P is just too important. You see, I am a budding conservationist. For as long as I can remember, I have been a firm believer that by conserving our environment, we help ourselves.

One of the first things I learned at Smith was that anyone involved in conservation or sustainable development must have familiarity with the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the economic sciences. No sustainable development plan will come to fruition if scientists, community leaders, and economists—the stakeholders—cannot work together. We must all be able to speak the same lingo. And for a conservation biologist to have any sway in the environmental debate, she needs to work with the people in power to “save” the planet—namely, politicians and businesspeople. I knew that to become the biologist I want to be, I would need to learn to speak their language in case they couldn’t speak mine.

As a science major with aspirations to be a conservation biologist, I was hesitant to go abroad for a whole year, but the JYA Geneva program presented a unique opportunity. Not only would I have a chance to finally prove to myself that I am fluent in French, but where better to learn political lingo than the international hub of Geneva, Switzerland? Former home of the League of Nations and home to the Graduate Institute of International Studies, several branches of the UN, and hundreds of NGOs. I was certain I would find an environmental policy course or internship I could stomach. With any luck, I would not only return from Geneva fluent in French, but also conversational in politics and economics.
Switching from the natural sciences to political science and economics was a strange and difficult transition for me, but it was well worth the effort. I found four environmental policy courses at two different institutions, two of which were taught in French. “Économie du Développement Durable” (“Economy of Sustainable Development”) at the University of Geneva Faculty of Social Sciences and Economics, and “Interdisciplinary Seminar on Environmental Issues,” “Managing the Global Commons,” and “Politiques Agricoles pour un Exploitation Soutenable des Ressources Renouvelables” (“Agricultural Policy for the Sustainable Exploitation of Renewable Resources”) at the Graduate Institute of International Studies and Development.

Having no background in economics or political science, I had to dive right in and hope I could swim. You could say I started another immersion program. So far, I’ve managed fairly well. And having so many government majors in the Geneva program has been a big bonus.

A Smith connection at the International Labor Organization helped me find an internship involving the impact on employment of sustainable development. Since January, I have been researching the impact of green jobs and eco-industries on the job market in developing countries. I not only get to learn about the hypothesis that green living is good living, but also get to be a part of proving it at a prestigious international organization.

As the year draws to a close and I prepare to return to the United States, I can’t say that I’m fluent in political lingo, and I’m not sure I ever will be. But at least I know that when the time comes, I’ll be able to hold my own in the environment debate—in both English and French.

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