When Courtnay Sopko was first learning about the origins of Greenpeace and the environmental movement, it ignited in her a passion for environmentalism. Less than a year later she was working for Greenpeace as part of an internship opportunity through the Co-operative Education & Internship Office.
“I learned a lot about the origins of the environmental movement in my Introduction to Environmental History class, and how Greenpeace started it all,” says Sopko, who then put her passion into practice. “Greenpeace gained widespread attention for environmental issues during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. They were one of the first groups to take a stand for the environment and make a difference. It was because of this history class that I knew I had to get that internship.”
It wasn’t always that clear for Sopko, who came to the University from her Fernie, B.C. home looking to study in a humanities discipline but not really sure where she’d direct her focus.
“History stuck out to me as a major that was challenging and also a subject I could grasp,” she says. “But beyond that I had no idea what I was going to do.”
Dr. Christopher Burton’s environmental history offering would prove to be just the spark Sopko was seeking. By the time she returned to Fernie the following summer, she had signed up for volunteer positions with local non-profit agencies Friends of the Flathead and Wildsight. It was through that work that she found the four-month Greenpeace internship opportunity.
Sopko applied and, after an intensive series of surveys and interviews, was one of 20 interns selected from a pool of more than 100 applicants.
“The internship gave me the experience necessary to run, organize and support environmental campaigns,” says Sopko. “It felt great to work with Greenpeace. I was able to take what I’d learned in my history, geography, and environmental science classes and put it into action through a work experience.”
From Sept. to Dec. 2009 Sopko worked for Greenpeace in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Japan. Her background as a history student served her well as she came to the job with a solid skill set of communications and writing experience. Being on the frontlines of the Greenpeace movement, especially when working as part of the International Day for Climate Change team, her knowledge was put to the test.
“We trained for months and had lots of information briefings so that we could answer all the questions that people might have about any campaign we were running,” says Sopko. “Now I feel like I can talk to anyone. I am comfortable facing opposition views, and I know I can still get my message through.”
She values the liberal arts background she gained by studying at the U of L.
“I got some pretty strange looks when I said I was a history major, because typically I was working with people who had environmental science backgrounds,” she says. “I now know that any degree with a focus on communication and writing is very valuable in the work world. After all, a critical part of what we were doing with Greenpeace required effective communication skills.
“The U of L helped me develop a well rounded point-of-view for the different arguments within environmentalism. I can look at things from a historical perspective as well as a more traditional scientific background. It’s a product of taking different classes from different fields and looking for ways to gain practical experience.”
She’s quick to add that she took advantage of the opportunities available to her and recommends students become engaged and take control of their educational experience.
“Take a diverse selection of courses,” advises Sopko. “Volunteer and experience different things. Make sure that co-operative education and applied studies are a part of your University experience too, because you never know what you are passionate about until you actually do it.”
GET THE FACTS
• Sopko, in her fourth year of studies, is set to graduate in June.
• Friends of the Flathead, with whom Sopko volunteered, works to protect and save the Flathead River Valley in British Columbia. Wildsight works to protect the Columbia and Rocky Mountain eco-regions in southern British Columbia.
• Sopko is looking to continue working with Greenpeace upon graduation. She is also seeking out new internship and fellowship opportunities.
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