Spotlight on the NRSD Program




By Antoaneta Tileva

The Natural Resources and Sustainable Development (NRSD) dual MA degree program is housed in the Global Environmental Politics (GEP) program. NRSD graduates earn two masters degrees, one in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service and another in Natural Resources and Sustainable Development from the United Nations-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica. We interviewed Dr. Judith Shapiro, Director of the NRSD program for AU (Professor Brian Dowd-Uribedirects the program for the University for Peace) to learn more:

Tell us about the NRSD program. 

JS: I have directed the NRSD program for AU since its inception more than a decade ago and feel more strongly than ever that it is a very special program. The two-year course of study combines professional experience and coursework in Washington, DC, which is a global center of power in the environment and development policymaking world, and applied fieldwork and additional coursework in Costa Rica, which is a gloriously beautiful country that is a pioneer in sustainability in the Global South. 

The program is a unique collaboration between two extraordinary schools. The School of International Service (SIS) is one of the world’s leading institutions of international studies. The UN-mandated University for Peace (UPEACE), is an all-graduate, 200-student school set in a beautiful nature reserve on a mountainside outside the capital, and is dedicated to the study of peace, sustainability, and justice. The combination provides an unforgettable graduate experience. 

What is the core mission/vision of the NRSD dual MA program? 

JS: The dual degree program offers students the opportunity to gain an international policymaking perspective while based in Washington, DC before transitioning to a year of applied sustainable development and natural resource management studies at UPEACE. Students have the opportunity to move from the macro to the micro and back again, thereby developing a unique appreciation for the challenges of sustainable development and a toolkit of skills that allows them to make a meaningful contribution to efforts to address them. 

We aim to incubate committed, passionate professionals. Our hope is that all of our graduates will gain the skills and self-knowledge to find meaningful and effective niches in the broad field of sustainable development and that they will be uniquely qualified to engage with the core challenges facing the planet. 

What are some things your program does to further your students professionally? 

JS: We have a terrific alumni network made up of people who have chosen to stay involved with the program and share internship and job leads, return to campus to speak about their experiences, and help current students make wise choices. We encourage NRSD students to find an internship when they arrive in DC, even if it’s just one afternoon a week. Our courses often include field trips to places like the Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, and the U.S. Environment Protection Agency, and we invite professionals into the classroom. 

While students are at UPEACE, much of their experience is applied learning, which helps them develop unique skills that are highly valued as they enter the job market. Finally, the capstone experience sets students up well for the next steps. If they do an extensive research project, they gain deep expertise in a specific topic; if they do a practicum, then they build direct experience with partners such as the World Resources Institute, the Rural Farm Coalition, the District of Columbia Government, the U.S. Department of State, and AU’s Office of Sustainability. 

This year, a new practicum, for the Natural Resources Defense Council, focuses on establishing a framework for evaluating and monitoring the voluntary commitments that governments, corporations, and other institutions are making in the lead-up to the 2015 climate change negotiations. Experiences like this can position students well in the job market. 

Describe the students in your program: 

JS: We have a fantastic group of students! I think the unusual structure of the program attracts adventurous, special people. Our students are often outdoorsy, creative, and highly motivated. I love working with them. Almost all of them come to the program with prior professional experience, so they know clearly why they have returned to graduate school in this particular field. Many are returned Peace Corps volunteers. The students’ varied and interesting life experiences are one of the program’s greatest strengths. I’d also like to note that our faculty members are outstanding. All are committed to our students even as they conduct cutting-edge research in such topics as water governance, political ecology of food and agriculture, peri-urban sustainability, climate justice, and geoengineering. 

What do they tend to do after graduation? 

JS: After graduation, a fair number of students find work at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of State—in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs and at USAID. But we have graduates in almost every major environmental non-governmental organization and consulting firm, as well as some who choose to move to rural areas to run organic farms or work in renewable energy or local conservation initiatives. Some live overseas working on (or even running) country programs such as those for the United Nations Development Program, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, or Catholic Relief Services. Some pursue a Ph.D. I try to stay in touch with them via LinkedIn and am always interested to see where they are five, ten, and fifteen years after graduation. I should also mention that NRSD students compete very well for national scholarships like the David I. Boren Fellowship and the Fulbright. 

Tell us about your own research and areas of expertise: 

JS: I’m actually a China specialist, not a Latin America specialist. I’ve published many books on human rights and environmental issues, most recently Mao’s War against Nature (Cambridge University) and China’s Environmental Challenges (Polity). Because environmental degradation in China is such a hot topic, I give a lot of media interviews and public lectures. Recently, I’ve become very interested in China’s global impact, as the country seeks to meet its vast resource needs and export some of its pollution. There was a nice marriage of my interests last spring, when I was the faculty supervisor for a practicum we did for the World Resources Institute on the impact of Chinese investment in Peru’s mining sector. The students produced an outstanding report. At the moment, I’m focusing on the second edition of China’s Environmental Challenges and will be adding more of this international material. That’s what I expect to be working on when I make my annual visit to the University for Peace next month!


To learn more about the NRSD dual degree program, please visit and