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Alumni Advice: Dana Gulley on Landing on Her Feet in the Sustainability Movement

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By Sarah Tuff Dunn

When you grow up in Garrison, New York, as Dana Gulley did, chances are you’re going to be a bit green. After all, John Adams, the founder of the National Resources Defense Council, lived for more than three decades in Garrison, a hamlet 50 miles north of New York City where dirt roads are fiercely protected by a society that considers them more harmonious with the trees.

uvm-alumni-advice“I was lucky enough to have access to the hustle and bustle of the city by way of the Hudson train line,” says Gulley, “but could spend my days playing in the woods—usually barefoot—with the kids from the neighboring houses.”

As an adolescent, Gulley discovered the Island School, a Bahamas-based program that teaches teens environmental stewardship through off-the-grid hands-on learning with solar panels, a wind turbine, and an on-site biodiesel lab. Bingo! “While I had been exposed to land conservation, this was my first introduction to the concept of sustainability, and I was immediately hooked,” says Gulley ’10, who earned a degree in environmental studies and is now the director of community engagement for Riverkeeper.

After going to school in the Bahamas, what attracted you to UVM?

The people, hands-down. Everyone was pursuing something they cared about, academically or otherwise, and that energy was very attractive to me.

How did you end up working for Senator Patrick Leahy while you were in college?

I was taking the Charlie Ross Practicum in Public Service, which paired students interested in environmental policy and politics with state legislators in various House and Senate committees. The course was named for the late Charlie Ross, who was an extremely influential and respected public servant and former professor of public service at UVM. As students, we were fortunate to meet with Charlie’s son, Chuck, who was then the state director for Senator Leahy. Chuck’s integrity and passion for public service was infectious, and it became a goal to get to work with him directly. I applied for Senator Leahy’s internship program the first chance I got.

You became a volunteer firefighter in 2011—are you still putting out figurative fires today?

It’s funny; I guess my job does come with its fair share of figurative fires. At Riverkeeper, I’m not doing my job if I’m not regularly building partnerships with individuals, businesses, fellow nonprofits, municipalities, schools, colleges, and community groups. So I work with a lot of different personalities and types of people who are all approaching the work from different perspectives, which you could say makes my work challenging, but it’s what I absolutely love about it.

How has the field of environmental studies changed since you first started?

I’ve witnessed firsthand how powerful and critical young and diverse voices are in developing solutions to our environmental challenges. We won the ban on fracking in New York when everyone came together—environmental groups, the medical community, educational institutions, religious organizations, businesses, filmmakers, and average citizens asking, “What can I do to make a difference?”

What about the environment and the outdoors most sparks your passion?

First and foremost is an inherent sense that all living things deserve respect and that we are shortsighted as a people if we value the greed and conveniences of today over a biodiverse tomorrow. But also, being in natural spaces provides me with inner peace and comfort.

What tips would you give on launching a career in environmental studies?

Think outside the box! There are so many ways to protect the environment. I was sure I wanted to be an environmental attorney when I graduated from UVM, which is why I first started working at Riverkeeper, where a third of our staff are environmental attorneys. Five years later, I’m so grateful I went to work instead of straight to law school. Now, I just submitted my applications to business school for nonprofit management and social impact work. If you had told me five years ago that I would pursue an MBA, there’s no way I would have believed you. But yet here I am, taking prep courses in accounting and economics for the first time in my life and feeling like these new skills will allow me to most meaningfully protect our natural resources at this stage in my career.

From working in community engagement, what advice do you have on networking?

Relationships are easy when you’re passionate about what you do and genuine in your desire to connect with others. I work with a lot of volunteers and community partners, and it’s important to maintain perspective and remember that often people have full-time jobs, families, and other life obligations that they’re managing while they are giving their time and energy to support Riverkeeper. I try to show my gratitude to people by being flexible but also by not wasting their time. I count myself lucky to get to work with so many different people, and I always try to understand their personal goals so that I can help shape a partnership that is just as fulfilling for them as it is for us.

-Sarah Tuff Dunn is a freelance writer and editor from Shelburne.

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