Meet graduating sustainability master’s student Sophia Vitale

Sophia VitaleSophia Yvonne Vitale is days away from graduating with her Master of Sustainability Leadership from Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability. She said her inspiration to study sustainability came from a spiritual awakening in which she realized that all of her actions have impacts, and she wanted to do more to change the world. Despite family tragedies occurring during her studies, Vitale was able to stay on track with her degree and learn a lot through her classes, school mentors, classmates and capstone project — a sustainability consulting project working with businesses. Read more about Vitale’s journey in her Q&A. Question: Can you tell us a little bit about your background? Answer: I was born and raised near Chicago, Illinois with my mom, three sisters, and more rescue animals of all kinds (except dogs and cats, haha) than I could ever try to count. I have always been passionate about environmental, social and animal rights. My entire life has been a bit surreal. I have experienced a lot of darkness; it’s just the way my cards were dealt, but everything my family and I have been through continues to make me a stronger and more compassionate person — a truth of my journey for which I’ll always be grateful. I dropped out of high school after just two years to work full time as supervisor in an animal shelter. Although it was grueling and emotionally challenging, I loved the work, loved the animals, and loved the impact I was having. I spent my entire life thinking that I wanted to become a vet; I took a job as a vet assistant and started college early with that dream in mind. However, the more classes I took and more aware of the state of the world (and more aware of myself) I became, the more I realized that there was a battle much greater to be fought. Q: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study sustainability? A: What ASU would call my “aha” moment, I call my spiritual awakening. It was not one moment but a series of them, slowly at first and then nonstop, where I realized I had been asleep for my entire life. I’d tried to be a good person, I recycled and didn’t litter, I fought and protested for what I believed in, but I barely scratched the surface. As I woke up and became self-aware, enlightened, whatever you’d prefer to call it, I realized that every single choice I make has consequences that scale out in ways I can still barely fathom. My life now consists of tirelessly making conscious choices to be the best person that I can be, making the most ethical decisions that I can. I started with cosmetic products: making sure neither a final product nor the ingredients nor their parent company is tested on animals, making sure they don’t use mica (just to get a pretty shimmer) which is dangerously mined using children, avoiding plastic packaging, only buying in-town to avoid the emissions from shipping. I started with cosmetics and moved on to food, then household products, then clothing, electronics — every aspect of my life turned into an exhausting and rewarding attempt at considering every possible impact of every decision I ever made. I realized that I had been blindly trusting companies that either didn’t know better or didn’t care to make morally right choices. I love animals, I love nature, I love people, and frankly I love to exist! As soon as I learned about the MSL program, what sustainability is, and how growing through sustainable development can change the world for the better, I knew what I had to do. Q: Why did you choose the Master of Sustainability Leadership? A: ASU is highly ranked for innovation and was among the first (if not the first!) to offer a program like Executive Master of Sustainability Leadership & MSL! The faculty was so informative and passionate from the very start of my application process to admittance and enrollment, (and everyone stayed that way for the entirety of my ASU experience). I thought it was exactly what I needed and I was right. Q: Are there any particular classes or nuggets of information that have really stuck with you or inspired you? A: Every class I took through ASU was equally as valuable as each other one, and while they all taught me different things, one shared lesson I learned from them all is that my network of peers, professors and experts in the field is and will continue to be my greatest resource. I can’t overstate how helpful, supportive and inspiring my cohort and mentors have been. Q: How did you balance your classes with your work/personal life? A: The answer to this question is also the answer as above. Especially since I had multiple family tragedies occur during my MSL program, communicating honestly with my advisors, professors, and with my family was definitely the right decision. Keeping schedules with detailed planners also helped me enormously! Even if familial obligations challenged my ability to stay on course, I was never surprised by my workload or due dates. Money tree growing in potsQ: Can you tell us about your capstone project? A: Sustainable Sense Business Consulting began as an attempted project (actually two) to be carried out with my full-time employer, transitioned into a free-lance consulting initiative, and culminated into an examination of the challenges faced by amateurs in the relatively new industry of sustainability. The mission of Sustainable Sense became to inspire organizations to operate with the future in mind, arming them with the information and tools they need to sustain themselves, their businesses, and their communities. My goal was to get businesses to say “yes” to letting me consult with them about missed business opportunities in things like energy efficiency, reduced paper waste, and process improvements, communicating the profitability of environmental sustainability. By encouraging organizations to make positive changes such as these, I would help ensure their business can continue to operate well into the future despite the immediate and impending threats of the climate crisis, including energy dependency, pollution, and the planet’s finite resources. As an amateur sustainability professional, I was faced with many challenges: disapproval by peers and supervisors caused the termination of the first two initiatives just a few weeks in, dismissal by potential clients and partners prevented the initiation of alternative projects during the scope of my capstone course, and other unforeseen obstacles forced the project’s next steps and goals to be repeatedly reset. Sustainable Sense therefore became less of a project with tangible, measurable outcomes and more of a learning experience intended to teach people with business-, environmentally-, and/or sustainability-focused projects with goals similar to mine what the challenges are that they will face, how to work around them, and best practices to realize success in such a fresh but vitally important industry. I am excited to say that I am going to continue my work as an amateur sustainability consultant. I currently have two businesses that have agreed to work with me in the near future! My work will continue into the summer and hopefully beyond, building up my resume and helping me grow professionally into a career in sustainability and social responsibility. Q: What are your plans after graduation, beyond building your experience as a consultant? A: I am moving back home to Chicago to take care of my family and I am working with my supervisors to transition from a field leadership role within my company to a spot on their Corporate Social Responsibility team at corporate headquarters!