Sustainable development alumna mentors first-generation college students

By Madalene Smith

May 2017 Appalachian State University graduate Josie Lee Varela just obtained a master’s degree in political science and environmental policy and analysis. She also attended Appalachian as a sustainable development major, graduating in May 2015; however, her history with the university goes back even further than that.

Varela attended Alleghany High School in Sparta, North Carolina, which is located in one of the counties eligible for the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) summer camp offered by Appalachian. The program is intended to prepare and inspire prospective college students living in poverty-affected areas of Western North Carolina. Thanks to this program, Varela set foot on campus for the first time in 2009. She loved every minute of the experience and knew Appalachian was the place where she would one day go to school.

“When it came time to apply for colleges, I applied to many, but ASU was where I was meant to be,” she said. “I refused to go anywhere else but here.”

When Varela finally arrived, she was, as many students are, unsure of declaring a major. Her love of art and the environment, coupled with a passion for biology and problem solving, led her to a major in the College of Fine and Applied Arts’ Goodnight Family Department of Sustainable Development.

“Sustainable development is what we need, it connects the dots of issues that we often fragment into entirely separated problems,” she shared

During her time as an undergrad, Varela was the recipient of the Doc and Rosa Lee Watson scholarship, which is awarded to local students majoring in sustainable development. As a scholarship recipient, she was also accepted into the Goodnight Fellows program where she collaborated with sustainable development faculty on service activities. Fellowship was, and remains to be, a common theme in Varela’s academic experience.

“Sustainable development folks are family. Potlucks on final exam days are the best. I see my SD people after graduation and it's like our conversations from class continue right where they left off,” she said

While a graduate student in environmental policy and women’s studies, Varela also worked as head graduate student mentor for Student Support Services (SSS). SSS is part of the Learning Assistance Program (LAP) at Appalachian, which assists specifically low-income, first-generation college students. Varela was one such student supported by LAP and her involvement is a way to show her gratitude for the help she received.

“I would not have been able to reach such an achievement of obtaining my Bachelor of Science degree without the support of the Learning Assistance Program (LAP) here at ASU.”

Varela is considering continuing her work with LAP post-graduation, but is also going to keep her mind and options open. Due to her diverse background in sustainable development and biology, coupled with her graduate studies in environmental policy and women’s studies, she feels ready to try almost any field, be it college student success, politics, conservation or community outreach.

About the Goodnight Family Department of Sustainable Development

One of seven departments housed in the College of Fine and Applied Arts, the Goodnight Family Department of Sustainable Development at Appalachian State University prepares students to thoughtfully analyze human development while focusing on the applied practice of pursuing transformative, community-driven development and social change. It offers a Bachelor of Science degree in sustainable development with concentrations in agroecology and sustainable agriculture; community, regional and global development; and environmental studies; as well as a Bachelor of Arts and minor in sustainable development.

Published: May 24, 2017 12:00am