From California to Wisconsin to Costa Rica, Environmental Studies Certificate Student Pushes the Boundaries of Her Comfort Zone

Claire Naughton. Photo courtesy of Claire Naughton.
Claire Naughton. Photo courtesy of Claire Naughton.

For undergraduate student Claire Naughton, getting outside of her comfort zone is an experience she strives for. Originally from San Francisco, Naughton chose to attend the University of Wisconsin–Madison as an environmental science major with certificates in environmental studies, energy, and global health. 

Without any family living in Wisconsin, Naughton’s decision to attend UW–Madison was a challenge that developed her resourcefulness. “Being able to leave my comfort zone pushed me to be a more adventurous and adaptable person,” Naughton said.

In spring 2022, her junior year, Naughton began another adventure far from home by studying abroad in Costa Rica. While at the School of Field Studies in Atenas, Costa Rica, Naughton said the experience gave her the hands-on training she was looking for. “I wanted to be able to go out into the field and do hands-on learning. Especially because we were online for a long time,” Naughton said.

Naughton while studying abroad in Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Claire Naughton.
Naughton while studying abroad in Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Claire Naughton.

The study abroad experience was fulfilling for Naughton in that she was able to add to her skillset while also helping the city of Atenas develop conservation plans. “It feels good to come here and know that what I’m doing is directly helping the local people,” Naughton said. “I’ve been able to work on both my research and writing abilities as well as appreciate the natural beauty of the environment.”

Naughton encourages all students with an interest in the environment to study abroad. “It will definitely benefit in the long run,” Naughton said. “I was a little intimidated because I’ve never done field work before, but I just decided to take the leap and go for it, and I definitely enjoyed it and learned a lot.”

The hands-on skills Naughton developed in Costa Rica contribute to the knowledge she has gained from her major and certificates back in Madison. Like two sides of a coin, Naughton shared that her environmental science major focuses on scientific systems while her environmental studies certificate narrows in on the social and interpersonal aspects of today’s environmental issues.

The environmental studies certificate is a 15-credit program that offers a unique opportunity for undergraduate students to learn about society’s environmental challenges, study environmental science, policy, and humanities and take part in environmental research, fieldwork and case studies.

For Naughton, the environmental studies certificate allows her to explore more areas of interest as well as interact with others who are interested in the same topics as her. “I really like environmental studies because it focuses on problem solving,” Naughton said. “A lot of environmental issues right now, we don’t have answers for them, and so a huge chunk of what we’ll be doing in the future is problem solving.”

Naughton recommends anyone who is interested in environmental topics take Principles of Environmental Science. Taught by Nelson Institute Professor Tim Lindstrom, the class gave Naughton a look into the environmental challenges the UW–Madison campus faces.

“A really important part of that class is the field aspect,” Naughton said. “You can learn a lot in the classroom, but you have to go out into the field to really understand what is going on. So, in that class you get to go on a lot of field trips.” Field trips that include visiting the Charter Street Heating & Cooling Plan, the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, and separating trash and recycling from the UW dorms.

Another class Naughton enjoyed was Climate Change Governance with Nelson Institute Assistant Professor Leah Horowitz, as it focused on social aspects, international law and the different ways to promote environmental problems. “A really cool part of the class was that it was discussion based with a lot of group work, so I was able to talk to a lot of different people and gain their different perspectives,” Naughton said.

Along with her classes, Naughton stays active outside of school where she is the Global Health Alliance (GHA) club’s forum co-coordinator. Each week, Naughton writes and occasionally presents on different global health topics to GHA members, an opportunity that she says is a great way to inform others about what she’s interested in.

During the summer of 2022, Naughton started training as a sustainability intern through the Office of Sustainability at UW–Madison. The year-long internship works closely with campus offices, departments and auxiliary units in which student teams raise awareness of sustainable practices, influence consumer behavior and train partners across campus in sustainability strategies.

Learn more about the environmental studies certificate and how you can support the program.