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Creating her own sustainability studies degree plan: Lauren Gaffron

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: Lauren Gaffron, a December UW-Eau Claire graduate, spent part of her final summer as a college student enjoying travel in South Dakota.

Blugolds are known to be innovators, forging new paths in research and discovery across all academic disciplines. So when University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire graduating senior Lauren Gaffron set her sights on an academic plan that would accomplish all her sustainability goals, she was prepared for the task of creating her own liberal studies degree plan to get there.

“There are a few degrees here in the area of sustainability, but none of them felt like quite the right fit for me,” says Gaffron, who wanted a broad scope of sustainability studies, not a specific scientific focus.

Her degree, her design

In following the liberal studies degree plan requirements, Gaffron, of Maple Grove, Minnesota, created a degree program that combined the three areas of business economics, environmental science and sociology/environmental public policy.

“Those areas of focus cover what are known as the ‘three P’s of sustainability — people, planet and profit,’” she says. “This broad range of topics is sort of the future of sustainability studies, but we didn’t have a program. I’m grateful for the liberal studies option that allowed me to pursue my goals and stay at UW-Eau Claire.”

Dr. James Boulter, professor of public health and environmental studies, chemistry and biochemistry, was pleased to help review this liberal studies plan for Gaffron, especially knowing that it does bridge a gap in current offerings at UW-Eau Claire.

“Lauren has done a great job of identifying and assembling the combination of courses to gain a ‘systems’ view of what sustainability means, while providing a roadmap of what such an interdisciplinary undergraduate degree in sustainability could look like at this institution,” Boulter says.

“This degree plan, along with her work with the Student Office of Sustainability, has prepared Lauren well to promote sustainability initiatives on a university campus, for instance, or in any public, private or nonprofit organizations.”

Gaffron says that the inspiration for crafting her degree plan came largely from sustainability concepts and visions she encountered in a series of classes with Dr. David Soll, associate professor of history and public health and environmental studies. Soll then served as her faculty advisor.

“In four of Dr. Soll’s classes, we looked at environmental issues from many different angles,” she says. “It wasn’t just about what we are doing to the environment, but what it’s doing to us.”

Gaffron also was inspired by many conversations with Soll that promoted further thought and examination of the complex systems that surround environmental issues. Soll recalls Gaffron’s steady participation in those courses, and a conversation style that helped engage her classmates.

“Lauren stands out among the many students who have opted to self-design a course of study focused on sustainability through the liberal studies major,” Soll says. “She has a quiet confidence and intelligence that distinguish her from her peers. Unlike many bright students whose enthusiasm can antagonize their peers, Lauren has exceptional social skills and consistently earned the respect of her fellow students during group work. Lauren is a fierce advocate for sustainability and a top-notch student.”

That intensity Soll observed is something Gaffron readily admits and leans into through all her coursework and internship with the Student Office of Sustainability (SOS). Maddie Loeffler, director of SOS, has valued both Gaffron’s passion for the subject and her open-minded perspectives.

“Lauren brings a unique, outside-the-box perspective and has fully embodied what the SOS stands for,” Loeffler says. “She's creative and amazing to work with. The SOS will miss her when she graduates, but we are excited to see where she goes and what she does next.”

A major change to follow her heart

Originally a collaborative piano major, Gaffron says that in her sophomore year she began to question if that was where she should remain. As she completed what ultimately became a minor in piano, she followed the path where her new interests and passions were taking her.

“It was actually a remark from my piano professor, Dr. Namji Kim, that ended up swaying me toward sustainability, although I think she intended for it to convince me to stay in music,” Gaffron says. “She said, ‘If you really love something, you just do it, no matter how stressful it may be.’ I realized that I hadn’t felt that way about music, but I was feeling like that about sustainability and environmental studies. I decided, ‘I love it and I’m going to do it.’ I didn’t look back.”

Although she’s realistic about the struggles in this field, like the politicization of environmental issues and the amount of “red tape” involved in making change, Gaffron is willing to take on that fight. And if history is a measure of determination, the planet might well have a Blugold to thank for a brighter future.