Meet graduating sustainability master’s student Christopher Mutshnick

Christopher Mutshnick headshotOne of the goals of the Master of Sustainability Leadership in the School of Sustainability is to teach tools that can be immediately applied to benefit each student’s workplace — and student Christopher William Mutshnick is a great example of that succeeding. Mutshnick, who is graduating with an MSL degree this month, has worked in the field of educational outreach and equity for nearly 10 years and used his capstone project to create for his organization a program that addresses global challenges while improving student learning and access to higher education. Initially, Mutshnick didn’t see how threats like climate change connected with education. But then it dawned on him: “In my quest to make the world a better place, I had failed to realize that a prerequisite was having a world left to save.” Read his Q&A to learn more about this realization and what Mutshnick has been working on since. Question: Can you tell us a little bit about your background? Answer: I spent my formative years in San Diego, California and Portland, Oregon. From an early age, I recognized the socioeconomic inequities that exist in our society. I decided at a young age that I wanted to dedicate my life to leveling the playing field and championing opportunity for all. I’m passionate about creating positive, impactful and sustainable change in the lives of first-generation students and the communities I serve. I have worked in the field of educational outreach and equity for nearly 10 years. For the past six years, I have worked at UC Santa Cruz's Educational Partnership Center — most recently serving as an Assistant Director for GEAR UP & EAOP, two college access and equity programs designed to help first generation, underrepresented youth in their pursuit of postsecondary access, acceptance and persistence. Q: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study sustainability? A: In 2016, Climate Central published an article projecting 2017 as the hottest year on record in over 130 years (Thompson, 2016). As I read the article, I started thinking about Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” a film that was released in 2006. In that moment, I realized how time had escaped me. The threats that the film addressed, once austere and distant, were manifesting before my eyes. I felt a sense of urgency, a call to action — but I worked in education — and I struggled to find a connection. I asked myself: what does college access have to do with sustainability? I started thinking about all of the work that was being done to advance principles of equity and it hit me. I saw the gap. In my quest to make the world a better place, I had failed to realize that a prerequisite was having a world left to save. I said to myself: nothing about educational equity makes sense except in the light of sustainability. If I learned one thing from the volatility of 2016, it was that I must never stop fighting for the change I want to see in the world. I let myself feel that urgency, and it propelled me to action. I started thinking about sustainability and how it applies to college access programs — how I could marry the concepts and impact social good on a larger scale. I had to do something outside of the norm and think differently. This inner dialogue led to the development of Sustainability NOW, an innovative, project-based, and STEM-centered curriculum that represents a strategic lever for the Educational Partnership Center (EPC) in achieving expanded outcomes that benefit the greater social good. But Sustainability NOW is more than a curriculum, it is a full-fledged organizational strategy for the EPC and educational service providers alike. Q: Why did you choose the Master of Sustainability Leadership? A: The MSL program has four threads: leadership, communication, strategy and global context. It's a unique program because it educates students on the most pressing issue of our time —but it goes beyond a review of literature and data. It equips students with the tools necessary to impact change in their immediate professional context. I chose the MSL program because it was interdisciplinary in that way. After going through the program, I can attest to how this program has helped me grow as a leader in sustainability, but also as a manager and storyteller. Q: Can you tell us about your capstone project? A: In the Monterey Peninsula School District, we ask our students to “dream big and dare greatly,” but threats like climate change, population growth and technological automation are threatening the realization of those dreams. UCSC’s Educational Partnership Center (EPC) strives to build college-bound communities that improve student learning and increase college-going rates among traditionally non-college-going students and families. But in as few as 22 years, the world will experience food shortages, wildfires and the mass dire off of coral reefs (Davenport, 2018). The EPC, as a service provider, must maintain operational viability by altering service models to address both college access and sustainability issues that are threatening the vibrancy of service regions and constituencies. Climate change is threatening the viability of our service regions and will soon have significant effects on the socioeconomic well-being of Monterey County, affecting critical employment sectors like agriculture. Global population continues to surge and is expected to reach 8.4 billion by 2032 (Basile, 2013). Dwindling resources and the scarcity of vital natural resources pose very real threats to our service region and constituents. Technological automation also poses a significant threat, with the Global Risks Report of 2017 reporting that “47 percent of US jobs are at risk of automation, affecting over 80 percent of low-income workers.” The urgency to address these issues is NOW. Sustainability NOW is an interdisciplinary, project-based curriculum and organizational strategy that can helped the EPC address these threats while simultaneously improving the local educational system. Sustainability NOW required a vision, mission and a strategic framework. It was designed to raise the EPC’s sustainable development to another level while simultaneously impacting the shared challenges facing both service regions and constituents. Sustainability NOW’s strategic framework led to the EPC being certified via UCSC’s Green Office Certification Program and led to the establishment of strategic partnerships that will help sustain the project’s momentum in the years ahead. All goals for Sustainability NOW were met or nearly met, with participating students raising their content knowledge and sustainability ambition by 9 percentage points over baseline. At its core, Sustainability NOW is a curricular tool and strategic solution for the EPC as we work toward achieving expanded outcomes that benefit the greater social good. In the coming years, I plan to continue working to scale this initiative district-wide and I am currently working with members of my organization to expand this program into neighboring school districts. In the future, I am interested in continuing to form partnerships with local organizations as we work to infuse more credit-bearing courses in our district tied to sustainable agriculture and environmental preservation. These strategies will continue to allow the EPC to impact shared challenges connected to the well-being and vibrancy of our service constituents and communities in the context of postsecondary access and persistence. Q: Are there any particular classes or nuggets of information from the MSL that have really stuck with you or inspired you? A: While all aspects of the program were informative and helpful, the storytelling threads were particularly beneficial. Through this program, I have learned the importance of understanding audiences and tailoring communications to speak to mutual benefit and shared values. I have also learned how to captivate an audience and sustain their engagement. These tools have been incredibly helpful for me in becoming a more effective leader in my organization. Q: How did you balance your classes with your work/personal life? A: Working 40+ hours a week and enrolling in graduate school full-time was no easy task, but I found that by waking up earlier and dedicating some hours to my studies in the mornings and evenings, along with a day on the weekend, I was able to manage my obligations for work and school. Planning and staying ahead of course requirements also served me well, as I utilized breaks from school to work on deliverables for my capstone project.