New professor reflects on sustainability, service, and teaching

Mercedes Quesada-Embid teaches a class in CMC Dillon early in September, 2011. Photos: Kate Lapides.


Mercedes Quesada-Embid’s life reads a bit like a script for the content of the Sustainability Studies class she recently taught on a crisp autumn morning at Colorado Mountain College in Dillon.  Deeply active in community work, pursuing research that explores the intersections of economics, resources and impoverished communities, the engaging, insightful Colorado Mountain College professor’s own life is an exemplar for a class exploring social, humanitarian, and environmental issues through study, community-based research and action.

Recently hired by Colorado Mountain College to fill a new full-time faculty position for the Bachelor of Arts in Sustainability Studies degree, Quesada-Embid comes to CMC with a strong background in research and teaching. She taught sustainability courses at university levels for over seven years and holds a Ph.D in Environmental Studies from Antioch University in New Hampshire.

Quesada-Embid shared some thoughts on her work, her new position at Colorado Mountain College, sustainability in our region and her experiences with community service work in a recent Q & A below.

 What excites you about sustainability in your new home region?

One of the most exciting aspects of this new region for me is the sense of involvement and participatory character that seems to exude from each new community that I encounter. The people within these communities are engaged, active and motivated to bring sustainability to the forefront of life of in Western Colorado. It is a pocket of consciousness with organizations such as the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, the Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability, Sustainable Settings, the CSA’s and Farmer’s Markets, Walking Mountains and so many more organizations and individuals that I have yet to learn of.

I am looking forward to learning more about the region and working with local stakeholders on projects connected to CMC and the new Bachelor’s degree. I think that CMC’s new BASS program is helping students to meet and understand such challenges and provide a solid foundation of knowledge, empowerment and whole picture solutions for regional mountain sustainability.

Why is it important for students to understand the concepts underlying sustainability?  

Sustainability, in its all-encompassing nature, is an essential web of interrelated concepts. As students engage with their professors, their classmates and the varied course material within the new BASS degree, they themselves become teachers. The strong ideas and insights that they cultivate in class do not remain solely in the classroom. These ideas are taken home and the students begin teaching by way of example in the home and workplace, via informal conversations with family, friends and co-workers. By sharing their knowledge, other members of the community also become attuned to sustainability and the implications it can have for society when embraced on a wide scale.

What careers and jobs can they find with a bachelor’s degree in the field? 

With a bachelor’s degree in this field, students will be able to imbue the vitality of sustainability in their communities by way of a host of professional opportunities. To name a few, a graduate could become: a Sustainable Nutrition Counselor at an elementary school or high school, a Student Services Sustainability Coordinator at a college or university, a Sustainability Business Analyst within the energy sector, an Ethical Finances Advisor for the banking industry, a Sustainability Consultant freelance or for a specific governmental or non-governmental entity, an Eco-Tourism Coordinator/Director for the local ski or national tourism industry, Operational Sustainability Liaison in commerce or the hospitality sector, a Sustainability Project Coordinator/Product Specialist for the technology industry or building industry, a Director of a Non-Profit Organization within the social or ecological sustainability fields, a Manager within the National Parks Service, an Outdoor Eco-Camp Director or Lead Camp Counselor, a Junior Environmental Compliance and Sustainability Consultant within alternative technologies, a Sustainability Program Strategist for urban or rural development.

Truly, the doors are wide open for BASS graduates. As students near the end of the program CMC faculty and staff will surely be aiding them in zeroing in on their professional goals. Not only will CMC have been ‘first choice’ for the students, but they will have first choice of jobs and be the first choice of their employers – I have the feeling that they won’t simply be prepared to answer the question “What can I do now?” but rather, “What would I like to do now?”

What excites you most about teaching?

One of my favorite aspects of teaching is simply participating in an individual’s learning; to watch someone go through the process of acquiring new information, internalizing it, and coming to their own conclusions about it is quite an incredible thing.

I try to create a classroom environment that supports a fertile and ongoing dialogue throughout the semester. Such ensuing dialogues are of vital importance because they help students to tap into their critical thinking skills, and once they begin to cultivate such skills, they can apply them to any aspect of their lives. I believe that learning in this personal and careful way empowers students and encourages them to do their best work inside and outside of the classroom.

A classroom can be the epitome of sustainability: a fair and just space for multidisciplinary learning, full of diverse ideas and experiential value for that multiplicity, no matter what subject is under study It is a joy to give students – both traditional and non-traditional – the respect, space, and educational tools they need to shine and feel positive about their work. My interdisciplinary training has led me to have a diverse wealth of dynamic, stimulating and passionate professors and mentors throughout my academic career, whose wholehearted enthusiasm still inspires me to aim for excellence with others as they did with me.

You’re deeply engaged in service work. Why?

I find service to be an essential piece of our lives, so much of it plays out in simple and forgotten ways, but I believe that the element of service is embedded in the altruistic nature of our humanity. One of the most powerful experiences of my doctoral program at Antioch was the service-learning project. For mine, I chose to integrate service as I walked the pilgrimage landscape that I was researching. It changed my whole understanding of what service is and the ways in which we learn by being open to and engaging in it. To make a long story short, for over one month I walked this 500-mile landscape focused solely on helping people through service. It was an amazing experience that re-aligned my understandings of others’ needs, mine, as well as those of the landscape that we all shared. Even my dissertation was revamped as a result. The biggest lesson that I learned was social, ecological and linguistic in nature: To serve is to preserve. So, yes, whenever I can I love to embrace the rich learning that is involved with service and volunteerism.

Your research interests lie in the intersection of economics, the environment and social justice. What specific questions do you research within this broad range of study?

In many ways my research and teaching interests overlap. I am interested in exploring the questions surrounding public access to natural resources as it contrasts to the privatization of those resources; I also often engage in an exploration with the ways in which local communities and impoverished communities are often those most supportive of natural biodiversity; and most recently, I have been quite absorbed in examining the means by which individuals become aware of the more hidden realities that surround them, in particular, the historical global patterns emerging within the food and seed sovereignty movements. Within each of these interdependent areas the questions of how one successfully gains access to information, and the public discourse associated with it, are key elements to consider.