If it weren’t for the computer simulation game SimCity, Sean McElroy might never have discovered his passion for sustainable cities. As a high school student, McElroy designed a modern city using the game for a required personal project for the International Baccalaureate program.
“A lot of the research that I did was on future cities, which often brought up sustainability,” McElroy said. “I thought that the topic of sustainable cities and development sounded really interesting, and once I heard about it being a major it was an easy decision for me to choose it.”
This December, McElroy is graduating from Arizona State University with a bachelor in sustainability from the School of Sustainability and a minor in urban planning from the School of Geographical Science and Urban Planning. During his time at ASU, McElroy has taken on leadership positions with the School of Sustainability Academy and the Honor Society for Sustainability. He also completed an internship with the Street Transportation Department at the City of Phoenix, and was a research aide working with ASU’s Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network.
Though McElroy has an impressive list of experiences under his belt, they came late in his ASU timeline. “Although I experienced these opportunities much later than most people, my advice is to trust in yourself and don’t think that you should follow the crowd,” he said.
The Phoenix native answered some questions about his experience at ASU.
Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?
Answer: Working in group projects, as well as what separates successful groups from unsuccessful ones, stood out to me a lot. Throughout the sustainability classes I’ve taken, I think this was the most significant because I’d often work with other majors and even people with different areas of focus within sustainability. This really helped to broaden my perspective of how each person interprets their meaning of sustainability. Working (with) and listening to people and professors from engineering, economics, business, environmental science and more exposed me to how diverse ASU is academically. I’d also say that this diversity has helped shape my own understanding and interests in sustainability from my experiences in class and working in various groups.
Q: Why did you choose ASU?
A: The fact that a whole school exists for sustainability is what really attracted me to ASU because I hadn’t heard of other schools that offered such an extensive program. Originally, I had thought about urban planning because that’s what my high school counselor suggested at the time. Towards the end of my senior year of high school I went to an information session at Wrigley Hall in the School of Sustainability that got me even more excited about the program and attending ASU. My impression was that I’d have more resources and opportunities to study sustainability at ASU than any other school.
Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?
A: Nalini Chhetri, my professor for my capstone class, taught me that the responsibilities and expectations of a professional are vastly different from a student. For sustainability majors this expectation is particularly unique because of the courses that we take and simply the label that we are a “sustainability graduate.” She made me realize how important it is for me to effectively demonstrate my sustainability knowledge and what would be expected of me in a professional environment. A strong emphasis of hers was that, as a student, we’re focused on knowledge gathering whereas once we become professionals we have to be able to effectively apply our knowledge to our job position.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?
A: Don’t be afraid to give yourself time to explore options and opportunities. As a sophomore and junior I’d get worried when I’d see my friends or peers getting internships, studying abroad and joining clubs, and I wasn’t doing the same. Although I experienced these opportunities much later than most people, my advice is to trust in yourself and don’t think that you should follow the crowd. Everyone has a different path to fulfilling their passion which means that you shouldn’t be discouraged if your path is different from somebody else.
Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?
A: I was a little intimidated at first because of the all the people, but I’d definitely say that the Memorial Union is my favorite spot on campus. It’s an easy spot to meet people since everyone knows where it is and there’s a lot of outdoor seating which is nice for eating or doing homework between classes. Sometimes I love to people-watch too, and with so much activity from people going to classes or getting food, the MU is the perfect place. I’m also really into soccer and during Champions League matches I’d go the MU by myself or with one of my friends between classes to watch one of the games.
Q: What are your plans after graduation?
A: My immediate plans are to give myself a chance to relax and recharge. I’d really like to travel abroad either in the spring or the summer because it’s been over two years since I’ve last been out of the country. After that I’m planning to go to graduate school to pursue a master’s degree in transportation planning or urban and regional planning. My goal is to go to a school in either Oregon, Colorado or California and to hopefully live and work in Portland or Oregon. After graduate school I’d like to work as a transportation planner at a local or state agency while being able to focus on sustainable transportation modes of travel.
Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?
A: Climate change in the transportation sector is a problem that I’d want to tackle. Transportation is one of the biggest — if not the biggest — emitter of greenhouse gases among other sectors. All of us use some form of transportation every day and I think it’s important to encourage and invest in more active modes of transportation such as walking, biking and public transit.
I believe that everyone should have reliable, safe and efficient access to transportation near their residence which would provide benefits individually as well as globally. The more people that have access to and use active modes of transportation, the fewer the amount of greenhouse gases that are released into the air. These greenhouse gases and their warming potential in the atmosphere cause changes in climates throughout the world leading to more extreme weather events, increased water scarcity, unpredictability and risk. Climate change can be tackled multiple ways, but my drive would be to address the problem through transportation and achieve additional benefits to health and other areas in the process.
Top photo courtesy of Sean McElroy