Today we feature Zachary Rouhas, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Environment and Sustainability Studies and a master’s degree in Sustainable Business. through an accelerated 4+1 program — the first of its kind in the state. Zachary, a veteran of the U.S. Army, discusses his journey to becoming a student within the accelerated program, his future aspirations as a student learning about environmental sustainability and sustainable business, and about his experience at Rowan as a whole.
What is environmental sustainability?
Environment sustainability studies is a degree plan offered here at Rowan that focuses on us as a society and why we are not making the changes to step in the right direction regarding environmental sustainability. Regarding the ground field work we do, we collect data to determine how extreme the environment is changing and how quickly change is happening.
Can you talk about some of the things you do as part of the program?
As a graduate in environment and sustainability studies, Rowan is setting you up to work in many fields. The sustainability field, in general, is exploding. But unfortunately, there are not enough qualified people to fill the positions that need to be filled if we’re concerned about the planet’s future.
Rowan sets you up to do field work, a researcher working on NEPA, an analysis, or things like that, or they set you up to work in a government organization with urban planning and sustainability concepts in mind. So by obtaining an Environmental and Sustainable Studies (ESS) degree through Rowan, you have a wide range of job opportunities focusing on sustainability. I genuinely believe this will be a massive career field in the future.
Why aren’t there a lot of people in these fields?
I think as a country, we’re just starting to get serious about undoing the effects we’ve caused since the Industrial Revolution. These aren’t roles that were traditionally on the books at a company. For example, Exxon was probably less concerned with sustainability and more concerned with profits in a capitalist society. That’s all fine given the period, but society is changing, and the general consensus of the American people now is that we need to step in and do something about the climate.
So now, larger organizations, the government, and even small businesses are really getting involved with sustainability and are concerned and active about their role in the environment and what they’re doing to change it. But, unfortunately, there’s just a fantastic amount of unfilled positions because there aren’t enough of these educational programs in the country. So we’re lucky here at Rowan to have this Master’s Degree because it allows us to break into this new and exciting field.
What was it that interested you? What made you go this route now?
Before enlisting into the Army, I had lived in Illinois, and that was it. I hadn’t had a broad worldview before enlisting in the military, and it sounds cliche, but joining really changed my outlook on the world around me. I was able to see the world and the way that humans were impacting the environment from a different point of view.
In the Army, I commanded Abrams tanks. Unfortunately, these tanks are not the most fuel-efficient transportation devices in the world. I ended up seeing many different things we were doing in the Army that harmed the environment; it made me commit to reversing those impacts when I got out. So after a decade in the military, I transitioned back into academics, and I knew that I needed to make an equal or more significant impact on the negatives I’ve caused by driving Abram’s tanks worldwide.
What was it about Rowan’s program that interested you more so than programs offered at other schools?
When I left the Army, I applied to all the colleges in the region that had a Sustainability Master’s program, including Rowan. As far as the major is concerned, this isn’t something that’s offered in a lot of places and especially not with an advanced degree to finish with an MBA. That said, it was really the only opportunity in the area to get this experience while having access to nature and outdoor environments.
I figured this major would not be that suitable to do in Philadelphia or even East Brunswick. Rowan just seemed like the natural fit. Because I wanted to get in touch with nature and figure out how to make a career out of that, I needed to go to a college with outdoor spaces and natural elements to study and explore for lab purposes.
What can you do with Environmental Sustainability Studies?
That’s when things get really fun. Large corporations need senior-level sustainability consulting and senior-level sustainability advising. In addition, there are new sustainability departments within these large corporations. So with an MBA, you have the opportunity to be in these senior management positions to guide a company in the right direction as far as sustainability goals are concerned. You also have that business expertise to say, not only are we going to be able to reduce the impact on the environment, we’re also going to be able to help our bottom line through green marketing techniques.
Our generation is willing to pay a premium for things we know don’t destroy the environment, and companies realize that. So as an environmental sustainability consultant, you can help the business and the shareholders by also helping the environment. So the MBA is the nexus of those two things where you can combine your business acumen, and MBA is a big deal. You combine that with your undergrad in Environmental Sustainability Studies, and you can significantly impact these corporations.
What are some of the things that you would do in the field versus work you would do in the lab?
In the field, you can work as a researcher for companies investigating their impact on the environment. For example, analyzing a hotel in Chicago with a wastewater outlet that leads into the Chicago River. With a degree in Environment and Sustainability Studies, when that hotel decides that they want to measure their impact on the environment, you can be the person who they’re going to call upon. You’re the one that’s going to go into the river, collect the samples, and then you would then go into the lab and review your notes. You would then analyze the water and figure out whether or not the offender is having a severe impact, whether they’re breaking any laws, or things like that.
You can also do this work for the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). The EPA is willing to hire people with degrees in Environmental Sustainability. You can also apply these experiences to sustainability advising even without an MBA. Sustainability advising would be more of an office job. In the lab, you’re advising the environmental scientists about what you’ve observed in the field.
What about fieldwork interests you compared to doing something like you said in an office?
I’m from the suburbs of Chicago. I didn’t grow up able to do this kind of stuff when I was a kid. Then in the Army, I was everywhere. I was in the wilderness of Romania and Poland, I’ve been to Bahrain, and I’ve been all over and experienced the outdoors, probably in a way that many people don’t have the privilege to experience.
Once I realized that I could make a career out of being in nature and my connection with the future of nature, it was a no-brainer. Although I see the massive value in what environmental scientists do, I would rather be out here, with my boots in the river and getting the day myself.
Do you take notes from other countries that you’ve been to that help you develop thoughts and presences about the United States?
As Americans, we have a really unique view of nature, who owns it, and what our inherent rights as Americans are to access nature and things like that. Whereas in other countries in Eastern Europe, or even in France — I was in Normandy — they are less concerned about who owns the property and more concerned with how we manage it so that someone in the future can enjoy it, farm it or develop it.
You can look at the Pineland Development Credit Program here in New Jersey and how that plays into land ownership. And I think being around the world, that kind of deed style ownership of property is not uniquely American, but definitely taken more seriously as Americans here where this is mine. I’m gonna do whatever I want with it. It’s not up to you. Whereas in other countries, sure. It’s yours. But what are we going to do with it? So it is just a different mindset. Not saying one is is better than the other. It’s just uniquely American.
So you were talking about how America struggles with this idea, and it seems like such a big task to fix America’s view on nature. So how do you not let that overwhelm you in your major and focus on the impact you can make and how that contributes as a whole?
Determined optimism. I speak to my wife a lot about how you stay optimistic in a world where it seems like we’re continuing to go in the wrong direction in terms of environmental issues. Especially when you really get into the weeds about our unsustainable lifestyle. Right now, I’m wearing waders made out of oil and natural gas, and so are my sunglasses and hat. When we think about those transitions, many people feel like, well, if you just buy a Tesla, everything’s gonna be ok.
But it starts to weigh on you when you realize that it’s not just electric cars; it is about everything. It’s the straps on your cameras, it’s the clothes you wear, it’s everything. But you really just have to stay optimistic. There are people like me and my peers here who are determined to get an advanced education in just how we can undo this, and we are the generation to do it. The optimism comes in when I look at the people I’m in school with. Everyone in this degree that I’ve met is excited about it, is less pessimistic about the future, and more optimistic about what we can do to join the rest of the first world in making changes towards reaching sustainability goals.
It does get very dark and ominous when you look at the ramifications if we don’t make the changes we need to make. Still, I am confident that my generation, as well as the future generations, will make the decisions to put us on the right path. I do this work so my future children can see snow on the top of Denali in Alaska and for the national glacier park to still have glaciers. These are all the decisions that I’m very confident and very optimistic about; we will do the right things as Americans. We have a history of eventually doing the right thing. I am very passionate about this work; therefore, I’m optimistic because I have to be.
You touched a lot on the sense of community here at Rowan, your involvement with your peers, and how the future is shaping. How, as somebody older, has Rowan accepted you and allowed you to still flourish?
I’m 32 going on 16. I’m as much of a kid as everyone that’s here. I don’t think anybody treats me any differently because, you know, I’ve got a beard, I’m a little older, I commute here, and I work and go to school. Rowan has been great. When I say that the people and the staff at Rowan are why I chose Rowan, I mean it. My first year and a half of school were entirely virtual, and then my last year was on campus, so I’ve had a unique experience. On my first day of in-person classes, I thought, well, here I am, Billy Madison walking into my first class, and what do I do? I entered the wrong classroom, sitting through the brief for the first 15 minutes. At first, I thought, I am just going to go home. Then I thought, everyone I’ve ever met here has been friendly and I should not worry about making a typing mistake. So I walked out of the class and found my way to the right room.
It’s honestly been great. The Military Service Office employees will email faster than I knew someone could type and are always so helpful. My advisors have been great. The business advisor and the master’s graduate business studies have been excellent. I went to school before the Army, which wasn’t the best experience. Because of this, I was kind of timid about returning to school and trying to be a student again. However, it’s been great, and I was anxious for nothing.
You hit on a little bit, but can you just talk more about the Military Services Office and how they have helped you here at Rowan?
I got out of the Army, which will be no surprise to any veteran, but Rowan has been more helpful than the VA. When I got out of the military, I had no contacts and no idea what to do. I knew I was somehow entitled to free school, and I didn’t know how to get it or who to talk to. I honestly had no idea what my next steps were. So I drove here one day, parked in the guest parking lot, and walked into the Military Service Office unannounced.
I sat down and talked with one of the people in the office, and three weeks later, I was in school. I felt pretty inadequate going into that office because I figured at my age, I should kind of know what I’m doing at this point, but this was all new to me, and they really welcomed me, took me under their wing, and took care of logistics for me. Like I said, ever since then, it’s been three years now, and it’s been just absolutely automatic. I’ve never had to worry about the VA, the payments, whether my health insurance was going to be paid for, or anything like that. I cannot say enough good things about them.
Can you talk a bit about your internship at Rowan, the opportunities that are available to students, and the importance of gaining this experience?
This is another crazy Rowan success story at 32 years old. I’ve got bills, a wife and a house and dogs and a lawn, which are expensive. So, therefore, I work 40 hours a week, and It’s hard to find an internship at a regular place when you have to work 40 hours a week to maintain a standard of living, but you also need an internship because you see the value in an internship. So I just had this conversation with a professor of mine. I expressed my frustrations with finding internship opportunities that fit my work schedule. So my professor helped me do some research, which is what I do now.
I work as a research assistant for Rowan University with Dr. Howell. I’m researching the Pinelands Development Credit Program, a transfer development rights program here in New Jersey, to save the Pinelands, which is unique. It has a ton of ecological value in terms of undiscovered flora and fauna, undiscovered plant and animal life, and more. So what we’re looking at in my research is how that program got started and how the ties changed in New Jersey to where we’ve implemented the only program like this in the country that’s been highly successful. Then how can we expand this to save more land and help more people? It’s a really incredible opportunity. And the fact that a Rowan professor saw a need for a student wanted me to be successful and helped me with this position. So now I’ve got not only a Rowan student accreditation, but I’m a Rowan employee. The internship is essential because, without real-world experience, you’re kind of going into these things blind. So an internship that says I was a researcher for a university is imperative for building a CV or resume.
So coming out of the military, as you said, it was difficult to navigate; you didn’t exactly know where to go, and Rowan gave you a sense of direction essentially. What is the importance of having a community like that after coming out of the army or just going into college as a student in general? What is the significance of having lessons with communities?
If I didn’t have the people around me, I probably would’ve been in the same position now as I was when I left college the first time without a support structure. So whether you’re coming out of the military or not, if you’re coming to college straight out of high school, you’ve got that sense of community from your actual community, the people you grew up with, and your parents. Coming out of the military, you have that sense of brotherhood.
To go into any situation where you leave that sense of comfort and to come to Rowan as an on-campus student or as a veteran who drives every day, it’s hard to make friends, especially as an adult. So I think if I didn’t have as positive of an experience as I did if I had gone to a university where the class sizes are three or four times the size and the people I was in class with didn’t talk to me, I probably wouldn’t have made it. So I really attribute a lot of the success I have now in school and in the military to the mentors, my peers, and the people to my left and right because they help pick you up when you’re down.
Two months ago, I got my first B plus in a college class, which ate me up. My professors, friends, and family supported me through that; I think that’s unique. When I first went to college, I didn’t have this experience; I lived in the dorms and didn’t talk to anybody. Throughout my day, I went to the job hall, came home, and after a semester and a half, I couldn’t hack it. I don’t know if that’s due to my own inadequacies or not, but here, the fact that I’ve got this vast support structure, and anytime I feel anxious or nervous about anything, I can just reach out to one of a dozen people is a very special feeling.
What observations did you make when everybody was in their homes during COVID-19? How do you see that translating into the future now that we’ve had a period where many people didn’t pollute the environment because they were in place?
After six months of being locked down, it was public knowledge to see how much the carbon levels were reduced. You saw the basins in California stop getting lower and lower as time passed. I think it really brought to light that although the decisions that we’ve made have had a massive and severe, and permanent impact on the environment, these things can be rolled back. We’re almost there, but we’re not quite at the tipping point where we just say, all right, we tried everything that we can. We didn’t get more sustainable during COVID. It’s not like we implemented many new rules regarding sustainability. If you just stop and pause for just a minute and let nature take care of itself, it will do the work for you.
The main issue is that we don’t do that. We never give nature a second to breathe. Theoretically, we would never give the world a chance to recover. We’ve been all gas, no breaks for a hundred and some odd years. So eventually, you’re going to need a break, and COVID-19 for the world was a nice exhale regarding sustainability. We’ve been destroying the planet in one way or another since the first automobile rolled off the line. We can make the changes we need to create, and hopefully, it gets enough people interested, and programs like this continue to do well. Hopefully, we can also continue to fill these roles where we can and make the changes we saw happening initially during COVID-19.
How do you keep your positivity up not only amongst yourself but for your classmates as well?
In the army, they teach you in Master Resilience Training. There’s always a guy with a raw egg and a tennis ball. And he drops the raw egg, and it shatters, and he drops the tennis ball and bounces back. He then describes to us that we have to be the tennis ball. We have to bounce back. He’s saying that you just have to come back up when you fall and break. What drives me is knowing that without people like me who are passionate about environmental sustainability, places like this won’t exist. I know it sounds harsh, but without people who are concerned about the future of the environment, there will be no future environment.
So as I fall over here, you have to keep going. There’s been plenty of times when, after an eight-hour shift, I didn’t want to drive over to Management Information Systems from 7-9 p.m. on a Wednesday. However, the important things I learned in that class are crucial to my future saving world career. Like you touched on earlier, the sense of community here. I’ve made friends in class, and I have the mindset that I show up every week and make it a point to not miss any class, so that’s a reputation that I’ve earned. It is those kinds of little things that kind of keep you going, keep you coming and keep you interested. I think the closer I get to the end, the further away I have gotten from senioritis. The closer I get to the end, the more excited I am to take what I’ve learned here, take my experiences, and translate that into a job where I can impact the world.
What would you say to a someone that wants to do this and work in this field one day?
I think that the impact I’ll have on the environment with this degree is more honorable, if not equally honorable, than the service I had overseas. I think there’s, I think there’s a misconception that to be a superhero, you have to have the most masculine appearance and have a six-pack with all these other [traits], and that’s not the case.
When I think about what makes somebody a superhero, somebody admirable, or somebody you want to emulate, I think about people who are caring and concerned about the future. I think about people who are empathetic and have people’s best interests in mind. Although a police officer or a firefighter, or a soldier has all of those traits, so do several other people within many other professions. So I think it depends on the lens through which you’re looking at the word superhero. I think somebody who ensures that Yellowstone doesn’t erupt and turns the entire Midwest into molten lava is equally as crucial as a firefighter, soldier, or airman.
You’ve said you’ve been to many places inside and outside the United States. What kind of joy do you get going to places like this, where you see nature driving, and what’s that feeling when you see that little bit of hope that nature can?
I’ve been to a lot of places. I think I have been to 30-some states. I’ve been to every coast, you know, never Alaska, but one of the things I learned first here at Rowan was just about America’s love affair with nature and how Teddy Roosevelt went and plucked out little places. And his reasoning for keeping these places around was not because there was oil under them or because we could harvest the lumber to make ships. The reason we kept them is that they look cool. So Teddy Roosevelt literally preserved all this land — not just him, obviously — but started the process of maintaining all this land just so people could go and look at it. That’s it. There are no ulterior motives here. Teddy Roosevelt thought that these individual places were simply cool and that every American should be able to come to look at them.
I took a class here at Rowan where I went to a fossil park just down the road where the first dinosaur in America was ever found 20 minutes from here. I waded in rivers like this and pulled out shells from 30 million years ago. Although this may not be the most spectacular scenery in the world, this is important. Being in nature, in general, just makes you feel better. There’s scientific research that supports that when people are more active outdoors, they are generally happier. I’m that guy. When I’m out here and doing this with my peers, there is nowhere else I would rather be. It blows my mind that in a year, I’ll be done with school and in the field getting paid to do what I love; it just doesn’t seem like a job.
See our video with Zachary here:
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Natalie DePersia, senior public relations major