Three years after earning her undergraduate degree in environmental science and management from UC Davis, Karen Askeland-Elliff (MESM '16), a San Diego native, found herself in the workforce hitting the same wall over and over.
“I was working for an environmental nonprofit in San Francisco on water and wildlife conservation issues. I had started as an intern, then was hired as an assistant on a contract basis. But to move to the next level, I couldn’t find an opening. I was told I was overqualified for assistant positions, but underqualified for career positions.” Even though Karen had on-the-job experience, the people who landed those jobs typically had master’s degrees.
Karen says that while her undergraduate degree started her on the right path, she didn’t have a long-range plan. She knew she didn’t want a career in academia. “I like chemistry and science, but I’m not a research person. I’m more of a people person.”
She’s glad she resisted the pressure to go directly into a graduate degree program. “Back then, I just knew about traditional research master’s or PhD programs; I didn’t know about professional degrees.”
Though she didn’t realize it at the time, she was already becoming a part of the Bren network. At the environmental nonprofit where she worked, she met several people who had a connection to Bren, and as she learned more about it, she decided it was exactly what she needed to move up. She was accepted, and was offered a Sustainable Water Markets Fellowship.
Karen had been interested in water issues since taking AP Environmental Science in high school. That class, and that teacher, inspired another student, too: a woman who was accepted to Bren the same year that Karen was. Karen’s group project clients were the Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited, working on a project that involved developing a groundwater mitigation bank in the Gallatin Valley in Montana, in collaboration with a local water rights consulting firm.
Between her first and second year at Bren, she did a summer internship in Bozeman with the consulting firm. “They took us fly fishing one day!” Karen remembers it as a special highlight of her graduate school experience, and when offered a job in Montana later, found it tempting. “It was so beautiful!”
It is such a special opportunity to live in beautiful Santa Barbara for two years and get to know smart, driven and fun people. I really cherish my time I had at Bren.
The attraction to protect pristine waterways – for drinking, for recreation, for nature’s sake – is common among Bren students, and it’s something that drives Karen’s career. Today she works at a large consulting firm, Jacobs Engineering, in Northern California. “I work on climate change resiliency and water management-type projects. One example was a climate change vulnerability assessment and adaptation plan for a northern California water agency. Another project was a sea level-rise vulnerability assessment project for a city in the Bay Area.”
Her time at Bren had an impact on what she does today. “I learned a lot about project management and organization. Our group project was like a consulting job, so I learned how to work with clients and manage scope, schedule and budget. I also learned how to have the confidence to negotiate salary: I have a little script that I got from Bren that I’ve actually used.”
"Getting an internship is so important. It gives you experience so you're not entry-level," says Karen. She advises incoming students to intern in a field you want to go into, not just any internship. “Getting a job after Bren was a lot easier because I had more experience, and had made more connections.”
She suggests making your network an ongoing maintenance project. Stay in touch. “The job I got after Bren I learned about from someone I knew years earlier. I stay in touch with a lot of people, and many of them have very different career focuses.” One of her groups of friends from Bren holds online happy hours through video conferencing.
The career development skills she learned at Bren are still very relevant in her life today. “I help everyone in my family with their resumes,” she says. “The career staff taught me how to conduct very successful informational interviews. This skill came in handy after I got my job at a consulting firm as well. I conducted informational interviews with various people in my company to get to know people, hear about their projects, and get on new projects within my company.”
But, she says, one of the most important skills she picked up at Bren that she continually uses day after day is a positive outlook. “Our group project manager had this can-do, yes attitude. I’ve taken that with me and seen how well it works when trying to find a way to solve problems.”
Her advice to incoming students is to enjoy your time at Bren. "It is such a special opportunity to live in beautiful Santa Barbara for two years and get to know smart, driven and fun people. I really cherish my time I had at Bren. Also, take some study breaks to see the ocean!"
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