Growing up on five acres near Corvallis, Oregon, is just one thing that contributed to Elliott Finn’s deep love of the outdoors. So did the camping and hiking trips he took with his parents, who as horticulturists challenged him to apply the scientific method of analysis and classification to every plant and animal he encountered. So did the visits to his home from scientists of all stripes, as well as the fact that home discussions usually formed around the subject of science.
This deep grounding in scientific method and a love of the natural world kindled a lasting passion in Finn, who now wants to use the skills he is developing to protect and preserve the environment. His long-term goal is to bring people together to craft what he terms as ‘pragmatic, protective, environmental policies.”
To prepare for this career, Finn, a double major in Environmental Economics, Policy, and Management (EEPM) and Biology, has spent as much time outside the classroom as he has on campus – coalition building, campaigning, doing scientific and environmental research abroad, and working on service projects.
Originally, Finn says, he aspired to attend a university farther from home, to expand his horizons and diversify his experience. In the end, with generous scholarship assistance, OSU offered all that he was looking for and more.
Coming to OSU, I knew I wanted to do both science and environmental organizing. I already had a considerable amount of research experience and knew that route wasn’t for me. Instead my long-term career goal was to get involved in environmental policy development, building from a strong science background, Finn says.
Gaining real-world experience in environmental policy work is essential to succeed in the field, Finn says, but to be truly effective you have to have both hard and soft skills; you have to be strong in the underlying science and effective as a campaigner, public speaker and organizer, he says.
One Opportunity Leads to Another
To help Finn gain a broader perspective, Brock McLeod, his adviser in the College of Science biology program, urged him to apply for a summer internship with Sen. Jeff Merkley following his freshman year. Finn was selected and got to spend about 40 percent of his time providing research and analysis on several environmental policy issues, including a proposed national bottle bill.
Prior to his internship, Finn already had become involved with student organizations doing work on environmental issues. In the fall of his freshman year, he attended the Power Shift West conference in Eugene, where he learned about Portland’s Bus Project, a grassroots democracy movement focused on green issues. The Bus Project sponsors a program called PolitiCorps, an intensive 10-week summer campaign leadership institute. Following his internship with Merkley, Finn decided to apply for the PolitiCorps program to develop his campaign skills.
Finn was selected as a PolitiCorps fellow in his sophomore year, one of 25 students from a national applicant pool. PolitiCorps required Finn to spend 10 consecutive weeks in the summer attending daily classes on campaign techniques from 8 a.m. to noon and then conducting campaigns from 1 to 9 p.m. Days off are few and far between, only about five all summer.
The group ran five campaigns in Portland and Oregon focused on issues like transportation justice, same sex-marriage, healthcare equity, equal access to higher education for undocumented students, and advocating for the designation of four new marine reserves on the coast.
The work paid off – this year Congress passed a law designating these reserves, Finn says.
Although arduous, Finn says the experience “opened my eyes to the advocacy and electoral side of policy. Both parts are mutually dependent.”
Also that summer, Finn learned he had received a $5,000 Udall Scholarship, one of only 80 awarded nationally to sophomore and junior level college students committed to careers related to the environment, tribal public policy, or Native American health care. He attended a week-long conference with other inspirational ‘Udallers’ in Tucson, Arizona sponsored by the Morris K. Udall and the Stewart T. Udall Foundation.
“The conference orientation sessions were good, but the most important thing was meeting the other 79 scholarship recipients,” Finn says. “It provided a great opportunity for networking and incredible financial support.”
In the spring semester of his junior year, Finn was able to add an international dimension to his studies in Biology and EEPM, spending four months in Chillan, Chile in a study abroad program focused on environmental policy and fish and wildlife management. Funding from the Udall scholarship, from OSU, and from the College of Science made this trip possible.
“Our program studied how environmental policy is made and how various natural resources are managed in the US as compared to Chile, providing an international perspective on each issue,” Finn says.
A Well Rounded Experience
Finn has stayed busy on campus as well, serving as one of seven student coordinators for the OSU Student Sustainability Initiative, volunteering with the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition, and managing and playing on two intramural basketball teams. As a coach at the 2011 national Power Shift Conference, he was part of a team that trained over 10,000 students, and in October 2011 he was invited to share his perspective as a student at the Oregon Sierra Club annual planning retreat.
He’s looking forward to returning to campus this fall to work on his senior thesis in the University Honors College. But first, he plans to take a vacation, of sorts. He’ll be traveling across Europe with his best friend, rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon with his family, and hiking 212 miles of the John Muir trail, culminating in an ascent of Mt. Whitney.
Eventually, Finn says he’d like become an environmental and agricultural policy adviser to a U.S. senator. But before that happens there is more work to do. When he graduates, he plans to work for one or two years in environmental conflict resolution or education before resuming his studies at a higher level.
Elliott’s story drives home a point. Many outstanding students choose OSU because it has a unique combination of assets. It offers world-class academic programs in the sciences that are broadly accessible. But no department or school is so large that students and faculty feel isolated from each other or the larger university community.
And even though the university is located in a relatively small, predominately rural community, its ties to the larger world are deep and wide.
“It ended up that OSU had all the programs I was interested in – everything I was looking for – and with the help I received, it turned out to be the right decision,” Finn says.