A Riverkeeper Fellows with her team in Kayaks on the Hudson River

From the Classroom to the Nonprofit Sector & Back Again

My journey into the non-profit sector did not begin conventionally.

For most of my time in high school and college the plan was to attend law school and become an environmental lawyer. My desire to go to law school stemmed not from a desire to practice law, but from a limited understanding of career options within the environmental advocacy space. Until my junior year in college, I didn’t realize careers focused on environmental advocacy expanded beyond those of environmental attorneys.

I also didn’t have a strong understanding of the realities of the non-profit sector; non-profits existed in a distant and abstract way, associated primarily with the word “volunteer,” not as a potential employer. While volunteers are a critical part of  the non-profit sector,  full-time staff members manage volunteers, raise funds, write curriculum, plan events, and coordinate campaigns at many organizations. After meeting and beginning to work with a Campus Organizer from 350.org my junior year in college, my perspective on environmental advocacy careers and the non-profit space broadened, and I began learning more about the existence of careers at the nexus of community engagement and legislative and regulatory advocacy.

Fast-forward nearly 7 years later, my early career has encompassed facilitating volunteer programs, and has grown to include working on campaigns and initiatives at Riverkeeper. One of my biggest realizations over my years at Riverkeeper,  has been learning about the disconnect between legislative and regulatory processes, and the importance of accessible participation for the impacted communities. 

Although I’ve learned the basics of some regulatory and engagement processes such as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (establishing and regulating superfund site cleanups) or Long-Term Control Plans for managing Combined Sewer Overflows , there wasn’t the time during the work day to learn comprehensively about the complex history, science, and economics underlying environmental regulations. I realized having a deeper understanding of the underlying factors at play in these processes would better equip me to provide communities with the tools they need to successfully participate.

To expand my understanding in these areas, I began studying part-time for a Master’s in Environmental Policy at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy in August 2019. Last week I concluded my second semester in the program, and am already benefiting professionally and personally, including utilizing my Geographic Information Systems course to make a map on an issue area I’m exploring at Riverkeeper. The interdisciplinary approach is supplementing my on-the-job learning from the past few years, and has deepened my understanding of environmental policy regionally in the Hudson Valley, as well as expanded my understanding of federal and international policy as well. As I reflect on my first year of graduate school, I’m already seeing the practical benefits within my current role at Riverkeeper, and look forward to seeing what challenges and opportunities the program holds next semester. 

If you’re considering going to graduate school, I suggest you consider the following questions:

What social and/or environmental issues make your mind race? What knowledge/experiences do you need to help contribute to solving them?

What does your dream job look like? What career steps lie between you and that role?


Jen Benson is the Outreach Coordinator at Riverkeeper, where she manages the annual Riverkeeper Sweep, and coordinates advocacy campaigns and initiatives. She is pursuing a Masters in Environmental Policy at the Bard College Center for Environmental Policy. Jen Benson completed the FAO Schwarz Fellowship in 2017 and lives in Kingston, NY. She can be reached at jbenson@riverkeeper.org.