Meet sustainability alumna Samantha Zah

Samantha ZahWith a growing number of sustainability programs out there, how do you choose? Samantha Zah, a spring 2019 graduate of the Master of Sustainability Solutions (MSUS) at Arizona State University, said she chose the program because of its applied approach. “I was concerned with getting wrapped up in academia and losing connection with the real world, so I appreciated the option to straddle both while advancing my career in the MSUS program,” she explained. Even before graduating, Zah applied the skills she was learning in class to a project with the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise, a business owned by the tribe. As part of the Navajo Nation’s strategic plan to advance economically by expanding tourism, Navajo Gaming is developing a travel center near Flagstaff — and Zah worked with the business to ensure sustainability was embedded in the project. Zah, who grew up in Arizona cities Phoenix and Flagstaff, said her family is from the Navajo Nation and the Midwest. Read more about Zah and what she learned through the MSUS degree in the following Q&A. Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study sustainability? Answer: I got a summer job out of high school working on trails on the San Francisco Peaks in Flagstaff, and that’s when I discovered this thing called “nature.” After that I started college and explored environmental issues along with social issues, and those specific to indigenous communities. I came to see the interconnections and need for a multi-pronged understanding and it became a way of looking at life that I couldn’t escape. Q: What particular School of Sustainability classes or nuggets of information have really stuck with you? A: I focused on how sustainability applies to business, and courses I’ve taken have changed the way I think about business and environmental ethics entirely. I see more opportunity than I did before, and I understand more the evolution of business, environmental ethics, and the complex origins of many of our current sustainability issues. Q: Can you tell us about your culminating experience project? A: For my project, I worked with the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise, a business owned by the tribe, to embed sustainability into their strategic planning and current economic development project: a new travel center 20 miles east of Flagstaff. I conducted research to build the business case for sustainability in a really complex cultural and political setting, and I also mentored 12 interns to carry out eight different sustainability pilot projects at the new travel center. It was an ambitious project and I learned a lot about, how they say, “shooting for the moon.” I had a great supervisor at Navajo Gaming who challenged me with the scope of this project and we were able to make significant gains. What was most exciting about the project was the building of partnerships with other departments on the Nation. The tribe is going through a major economic transition right now, so it will be interesting to watch how those involved in this project and those we built partnerships with can find an opportunity to push forward sustainability as an option for new economic development for the Nation. Q: How do you plan to use what you learned from this degree in your career? A: What I gained most from this degree was an understanding of the evolution of problems, the methods available for problem-solving, and the skills to be able to manage large, complex and multi-stakeholder projects. This degree will make me a better project manager, innovator, collaborator, interdisciplinary navigator, and complex problem-solver. Q: How did you balance your classes with your work/personal life? A: Attending graduate school was a major life decision and came with lots of sacrifices. But, going into the program, being the first in my family to be in grad school, I had no idea what I was getting into. Stress and frustrations built up the first year, and finally in the second year I learned to find resources and people who could help me manage work and personal life better. I stumbled through it, but I made it, and I’m glad I did! Q: Is there anything you’d like to add? A: Just want to give a shout out to all the School of Sustainability faculty, staff and other ASU staff who I’ve come to know and who have helped me along the way. I couldn’t have done it without you!