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August 8, 2019

Motivated by the proximity of her family and her interest in environmental science, Maddie Mercer decided to attend Arizona State University's School of Sustainability. It's a choice she does not regret.

"I found that the degrees offered by the School of Sustainability were the best fit for me and my interests, and I loved that they were available so close to home," Maddie said. "I also loved the intimacy offered by this program, especially because it gave me the chance to have a small, tight-knit community in the context of the much larger university."

Maddie Mercer is a senior at ASU pursuing degrees in both sustainability and psychology. She is also a Spanish minor and a student in the accelerated Master of Sustainability Solutions 4+1 Accelerated Master’s Program. Read more about Maddie in the following Q&A.

Question: Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Answer: I grew up in the north Phoenix area with my two parents and my younger brother, who currently attends the ASU West campus. One of my favorite things about my family has always been our road trips that we take to different National Parks to celebrate Earth Day each year. These trips are one of the things got me interested in conservation and piqued my interest in the field of sustainability. In my spare time, I love to garden, sculpt, spend time with my loved ones, and play with my cat, Charlie Kohlrabi, who I rescued from the urban farm where I work.

Q: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study sustainability?

A: While I was first drawn to sustainability because of my interest in environmental science, I realized that I truly wanted to study sustainability once I learned that it emphasized collaborating with others to create solutions, as opposed to only researching and reporting on environmental problems. I also love that sustainability focuses on complex systems, as I always saw the “natural” world as being very interconnected with human society.

Most of all, I chose to study sustainability because of its interdisciplinary nature and its goals of improving the present and creating a better future. Furthermore, it was actually in my first-year English class that I first became interested in food system sustainability — our professor had chosen the topic of “hunger and poverty in America” to be our overarching theme for the semester, which exposed me to issues such as food insecurity and incited my passion for creating more equitable food systems.

Maddie Mercer, left, and Jacquie Shea welcome new sustainability students to ASU during 2018 fall welcome.

Q: What’s been your favorite class so far and why?

A: So far, my sustainability favorite classes have been:

International Development (SOS 322) with Dr. David Manuel-Navarrete and Neda Movahed), because it stimulated reflection and self-growth through an alternative educational model, which altered my perceptions of international development and my role within it.

Fighting for Food (SOS/HDA 394) with Dr. Megan Workmon and Dr. Matt Ransom, because it gave me an opportunity to use art to communicate sustainability messages and raise awareness of urban agriculture while working with an interdisciplinary team. My group created a mobile vertical garden — called “Garden on the Go” — from which we gave out free plants and access to an online planting resource guide that I compiled to promote gardening among students.

My favorite thing about being part of the School of Sustainability is the community that it offers. In my experience, being a part of the School of Sustainability has helped me to find my place within the larger ASU, and it has given me the opportunity to become part of the school’s close-knit, collaborative network of students and faculty working together to create positive change.

Q: Can you tell us more about your work with St. Vincent de Paul?

A: In April 2018, I was hired as an Urban Farm Researcher at ASU’s Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Service to work on a joint project with the Phoenix chapter of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP), an international nonprofit organization that provides resources and support for people in need. Specifically, I worked with SVdP’s Urban Farming Program, which is comprised of three urban farms and grows over 48,000 pounds of produce annually to be served in SVdP’s dining rooms to people who are homeless or food insecure. In this role, I had the opportunity to conduct extensive research onsite, which involved directing volunteer groups — who are essential to the work we do at SVdP, as there are only four paid farm staff members — and maintaining the Rob and Melani Walton Urban Farm.

After a year of writing, I’ve finished my 50-page case study on the practices and community health programs of the Urban Farming Program, and I’ve created an interactive guidebook for organizations that seek to integrate urban agriculture with social sustainability programs. Upon finishing the project in May 2019, I was hired by SVdP to continue my work as an Urban Farmer and Research Analyst. In this new role, I am able to continue working at the urban farm — which I’m so excited about, because working outside and sharing my love of gardening with others is one of my favorite things! — and I get to implement my “Garden in a Box Project,” which is an initiative that I created to promote the food security and wellness of local schoolchildren. This project, which is being funded by ASU’s Woodside Community Action Grant and Valley of the Sun United Way, involves the creation of school gardens and garden/nutrition education programs in Phoenix Title I schools.

Q: Why did you get involved with Sustainabilibuddies?

A: I first became involved with Sustainabilibuddies as a mentee during my freshman year at ASU. I joined the organization because I thought that it would help me to find friends and meet fellow SOS students, and I hoped that having a mentor would help me to better adjust to my first year in college (it did!). My buddy helped me become more confident in myself and made me feel like a part of the SOS community, and I decided to become a mentor and join the Sustainabilibuddies’ Executive Board so that I could play an active role in helping SOS students to feel as welcome and accepted as I did.

Q: How do you envision applying sustainability to your future career?

A: In my career, I can envision applying sustainability by continuing to utilize collaborative problem-solving techniques with interdisciplinary teams in either the nonprofit or public policy sector. I plan to continue my work in the areas of sustainable food systems and community well-being, with a special emphasis on promoting equitable access to public health resources. I can see myself continuing to work in the field of urban agriculture as some sort of combination of an urban farmer, systems analysis researcher, and sustainability practitioner who seeks to promote food security and community connectivity.

I will also strive to incorporate asset-based community development techniques and advocacy work into whatever I do, so that I can do my part in shaping a more equitable and collective society. No matter what career path that I choose, I know that the different lenses of sustainability will help me to create multi-dimensional solutions that promote community, creativity and peace.

Q: What does sustainability mean to you?

A: To me, sustainability means the collective actions of an interdisciplinary community that strives to create a more equitable future for all.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?

A: I start my honors thesis this fall with my thesis partner and best friend Jacquie Shea. Together, we are working to help a local community garden to better connect with its community by identifying and applying practices that promote social connection. I am a member of ASU’s Sustainability and Happiness Research Lab, which I’ve found to be the perfect combination of my two undergraduate degrees in sustainability and psychology. In the lab, which I joined as part part of the Sustainability Undergraduate Research Experience Program, my research focuses on how urban agriculture can be used as a tool to foster community contentedness and promote both community and individual well-being.