OHIO alumnae combines environmental studies and international degrees to make a difference in sustainability throughout the world

Daniel Kington
June 7, 2018

Sall, AwaAwa Sall, a dual master’s international development and environmental studies Fulbright Scholar from Germany, graduated in 2016 and returned to her home country, continuing to apply her degrees professionally by working as the junior manager of corporate responsibility with one of Europe’s biggest travel companies.

Sall did not originally see herself working on environmental issues, after completing her bachelor’s degree in journalism and business communication.

“I was still in the process of determining what I could do to positively influence the world we live in, to see some concrete results and make a small impact,” Sall said.

Eventually, as Sall sought a way to make positive change, she determined that she wanted to study the environment and contribute to environmental well-being.

“The environment is something all life arises out of and depends on,” Sall said. “As a result, the study of the environment is directly intertwined with international development; economic and social development have environmental consequences, and issues such as climate change are challenges both to the planet and to people, particularly people in the developing world.”

In order to pursue this path, Sall applied for and received the prestigious Fulbright award, which allowed her to study in the United States. She was placed at Ohio University, where she began her international development degree. Sall quickly grew to love Athens and the other people in her program.

“Students come from all over the world to study international development at Ohio University. Because the program was smaller, we all got to know each other quickly and built strong friendships, so I learned a lot about different cultures,” Sall said. “I also felt like Athens was exactly the right place for me to study: it’s a small place where you can get around easily, and yet there’s a lot of nature and so much happening on campus.”

Focused on the environmental side of development, Sall wound up taking many courses in the Master of Science in Environmental Studies program at Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, and she found that she liked the program.

“The environmental studies program is hands-on,” Sall said. “Not only did we work to understand things on a theoretical level, but we went out and collected data; we learned how to actually look at that data, analyze it and make recommendations based upon it.”

Sall’s desire for a science and skills-based environmental education to supplement her studies in development ultimately led her to pursue dual degrees. Particularly when combined with her work as a graduate assistant, this was a time intensive undertaking. Sall finished both degrees in two and a half years total, meaning her decision to pursue a second masters in environmental studies required one extra semester at Ohio University. However, Sall said the extra time investment was worth it, as she found the pursuit of her dual degrees both intellectually fulfilling and practically beneficial.

“My dual degrees provided me with a broad variety of skills and a broad base of knowledge,” Sall said. “The degrees definitely complemented one another, and employers see that as a stand-out strength.”

The complimentary nature of her two degrees was evidenced in her joint thesis, in which Sall examined the cost-effectiveness of solar lamps for sub-Saharan Africa and community perspectives on solar energy systems in peri-urban Senegal. The study evaluated aspects such as the environmental impact and potential uses of the lamps, in each case investigating both strengths and weaknesses. This required her to address environmental and health questions, including the makeup of solar lamps, how people dispose of them and the comparative sustainability of different brands. These issues were paired with questions more pertinent to international development, including how villagers in Senegal view solar lamps and what infrastructure is in place to make practical the use and repair of solar lamps. Based upon extensive research, involving visits to Senegal, Sall made recommendations for how to introduce solar lamps into the area.

Sall found balancing these different interests among the most fascinating aspects of her research.

“I was able to see how the people actually living in these communities may struggle with something that Westerners making recommendations from afar wouldn’t even see,” Sall said. “For instance, if the lamp breaks down easily and you’re living in a village hours from someone who could actually fix it, then the lamp is just waste. In addition to environmental impact, I had to consider what would make the lamps practical and useful for real communities – and every community is different.”

While Sall’s research was fairly specific, she was able to take broader lessons away from the project.

“You should never judge from afar,” Sall said. “You have to talk to people to see what really works for them. That’s really important in the development field, and it is evidently relevant to sustainability as well.”

Sall continues to draw upon both of her degrees in her current position with DER Touristik, a travel company based in Germany. DER Touristik Group does business in 15 European countries and brings together a broad range of travel services under one roof. Sall monitors the company’s internal sustainability practices, minimizing food waste in the company’s hotels, encouraging sustainable practices among company employees and suppliers and working to make the company’s offices more energy-efficient and sustainable. She also helps the company to preserve the cultural and environmental diversity of destination countries and create sustainable travel experiences by travelling to destination countries in order to evaluate the practices of partner companies.

For instance, Sall works to ensure that companies that use animals treat those animals humanely. Last year, Sall travelled to Thailand to evaluate the treatment of elephants used for tourism activities. Unfortunately, the local elephant camps Sall evaluated did not always treat their elephants well – many were chained, unable to move around and were trained in a manner detrimental to the health of the animals. However, Sall was able to initiate improvements and support the joint effort of tour operators to make a difference.

“At DER Touristik, we understand our responsibility,” Sall said. “We primarily aim to cooperate with and support our suppliers in improving their animal welfare standards. But if a given company won’t invest in improving the situation of their animals, then we ultimately won’t sell them anymore. That’s our approach, and it creates change that’s really sustainable, which is so rewarding to see.”

Sall said she would not be able to make such a positive impact now if it were not for her great professors, supporters and education at the Voinovich School and the Center for International Studies at Ohio University.

“You have to study things first to understand the bigger picture,” Sall said. “Because of my education, I understand that it’s rarely just one aspect we have to focus on, because it’s probably connected to something else. In my work ensuring the humane treatment of animals, I am therefore aware that people from other cultures might have different perceptions and traditions than we do. I consequently take my work step by step, listening to the voices of all different sorts of people.”

Sall wants to continue working with DER Touristik for the foreseeable future, but whether or not she remains in the tourism industry for the rest of her career, Sall hopes to advocate consistently around environmental issues.