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New Faculty Spotlight: Mari Ewing

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Professor Mari Elise Ewing may be the newest instructor of Environmental Studies on Austin College campus, but she is far from unfamiliar with the school; she graduated from Austin College in 2007, having majored in the field that she would later return to teach. As a recent graduate, Ms. Ewing is an excellent source of information on what it is like to apply to and attend graduate school after Austin College. I spoke with Ms. Ewing to find out how a Coloradan such as herself ended up at Austin College, and what compelled her to return.

Q: You grew up out of state; how did you hear about Austin College, and why did you think it was a good choice for you as a student?

A: My dad said I should go to a small liberal arts college. He’d gone to state colleges but he knew a lot about college structure. He thought you could get a better education at a small liberal arts school. I looked at schools all over the South, as my mom’s family is from Texas, and I applied to Southwestern, Trinity, and Austin College. I had narrowed it down to Texas versus elsewhere further away from home in the south. Ultimately came down to the fact that Austin College gave me the best scholarship, and I think that’s another common deciding factor.

Q: Did you know you were interested in Environmental Studies when you started?

A: No, they didn’t have an Environmental Studies major when I started. They had a minor, but I didn’t have Environmental Studies on my radar at all. I was an English and Biology double major when I started, and I couldn’t really decide between those two. My sophomore year, a good friend of mine introduced me to the Environmental Studies program. I had to make a lot of changes to my original schedule, but I ended up falling in love with Environmental Studies. So I started taking more classes, while still doing Biology and English, and then my junior year it became a major. So now I have a major in Environmental Studies and minors in Biology and English.

Q: Were there extracurriculars you were a part of? Was THINK an organization on campus at the time?

A: I was involved in extracurriculars but nothing Environmental Studies related which is interesting because now I know everyone does ECOS and THINK. I was really heavily involved in Circle K, which is a volunteer organization that works through Kiwanis that does a lot of volunteer work in the community. We set up some programs through North Central Texas like Big Brother Big Sister programs with the college. Almost every Saturday I was involved with Habitat for Humanity. Another good friend of mine was the president of that organization for two years and so I ended up doing a lot of early Saturday morning stuff with them. And then I worked a lot of jobs during college, for George Diggs and the football team and athletic department, I led the Sneed Prairie educational trips for the local schools my senior year, and I was an alumni caller. I had to pay my rent.

Q: Did you go straight to graduate school after college?

A: I did.

Q: And that was for environmental studies?

A: I went initially for my masters, and it wasn’t until I was there that I realized I wanted to go on and do my Ph.D, so then I had to reapply to a doctorate program.

Q: So when you were looking at grad schools, how did you choose a school?

A: I applied to and was accepted UC Santa Barbara, Columbia, and Duke. I was really naïve, no one in my family had gone to grad school and had this experience of the process: how do you find a grad school that will pay you? What is the difference between an academic masters and a more end of the road terminal masters where the goal is to go out and work in business or industry? I didn’t know how the process worked at all. It really came down to realizing that some of the masters programs I had applied to, though they were great programs, were those terminal degrees, where you would go work in food systems or something like that. It came down to the fact that Colorado would pay me to get my master’s and PhD by doing research for them and teaching for them. It was not the way that I would advise people to look at graduate schools.

Q: It’s really difficult, knowing how to look at graduate schools.

A: It is, and the people that I knew in graduate school that really knew what they were doing were those who had parents who told them “this is how it’s done”. I didn’t have that experience but I learned and I figured it out, and it was great to be back in Colorado.

Q: So what led you back to Austin College?

A: I was finishing my program this fall, and I knew that I almost certainly wanted to teach and be a professor. I had done work for the Nature Conservancy in Colorado, part-time and summer work for about 2.5 years, and had two opportunities to work full-time for them. The first one I turned down to do a National Science Foundation Fellowship, and the second I turned down for this job. I really was interested in the work the Nature Conservancy was doing in Colorado, and the work I had been doing with them in Colorado, but ultimately I really wanted to be in an academic setting. This job came up as I was getting ready to finish, and it was the perfect fit; I knew that I liked this part of the world, and I knew the social dynamics that I liked on campus, and a lot of the same reasons I wanted to come here as a student are the same reasons I wanted to teach here. Things are very integrated across campus, and that doesn’t happen at a big school. I love the emphasis on teaching. I love to teach. I really get excited about it; I like lesson-planning, I like thinking about how am I going to present the material in a way that is hopefully engaging, so I wanted to be in a situation where I could do that. As a first year faculty, I’m not doing a CI class, there’s no one I’m mentoring, but eventually next year or the following year I’ll have students to mentor and I like that. I did quite a bit of that casually in Boulder. It wasn’t a formal thing, but I taught a couple upper-level classes with my advisor there and she and a lot of faculty were busy, so the students would end up coming to the TA’s who were graduate students and asking for advice. I had a really open door policy, and people came in all the time to get answers that they had trouble getting from other sources, and since I had just been through the process myself I could help that. I like mentoring, I don’t know if I’m a great mentor but I want to be engaged and understand what’s going on with my students and what they’re thinking and what they want to do and then hopefully tailor a little bit of their classes to what my students need or want.

Q: Final question: what are your goals for being in the Environmental Studies department? You said you liked the integration of other departments here.

A: I like the interdisciplinary aspect and so long term, I would really like to be able to do research with students and collaborate with other faculty from other departments in ways that are truly interdisciplinary. Not a kind of a cursory approach to it but truly interdisciplinary research that really requires you to have an understanding of Political Science and Environmental Studies, or Economics and Environmental Studies or Biology and Environmental Studies. I would also like to get involved co-teaching classes, similar to Keith Kisselle and Don Rodgers and their Globalization class. Then I think there’s a need to increase the presence of the Environmental Studies program both on campus and also outside of campus, both in the community and with the college donors. It’s an academic program but it has these possibilities of being actually really on the ground and active…When you say Environmental Studies now, people think you’re the ones into recycling, turning off the lights and worrying about climate change, but there’s this whole base of information and knowledge that goes into that.

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New Faculty Spotlight: Mari Ewing