Three degrees toward climate healing

By

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

In answer to the question: “Why English, philosophy and sustainability?” Zane Encinas might say, “Isn’t it obvious?”

But here’s the real answer: The Arizona State University student intends to work as both an artist and a researcher in the field of environmental education, with the lofty goal of achieving “collective healing and radical kinship amidst a climate crisis.”

Graduating this spring from Barrett, The Honors College, Encinas is earning three bachelor’s degrees: in English (writing, rhetorics and literacies), in philosophy (morality, politics and law) and in sustainability (policy and governance in sustainable systems)

And because Encinas believes humans’ response to the current climate crisis is, in part, caused by a lack of “an affective relationship with information,” they are rounding out their focus areas with additional informational tools: a minor in sociology and certificates in environmental humanities, environmental education and social science research methods.

Their academic and campus leadership work bears out this view of humanities, arts and sciences as interconnected. Their honors thesis, “Bee-longing in STEM: Refining and Evaluating Movement-based Activities for Bee Conservation Science Engagement and Education for Middle Schoolers,” works to make inclusive pedagogical practices for girls in STEM.

Encinas is the founder and president of Climbing Vines, the nation’s first undergraduate student organization focused on the environmental humanities. They were also vice president of The Faithful City, director of operations of the Sustainability Alliance, president and recruitment officer for the Honor Society for Sustainability, and co-chair of the Sustainability Advocacy and Advisory Board. Their leadership with these student organizations was recognized with a Pitchfork Award for Emerging Student Leader.

They have been an award-winning research assistant for seven different projects across various disciplines researching urban residents’ attitudes toward wildlife, environmental public art, substance abuse, factors that contribute to young adults’ personal understanding of their American identity and Indigenous media rights.

Winner of a dizzying array of honors, which includes a National Hispanic Merit Scholarship and “local” recognitions like the Friends of the Department of English Scholarship in 2021 and a Homecoming Writing Contest Award for scholarly essay in 2020, Encinas is on a trajectory to change the world.

It’s no surprise then, that given this student’s accomplishments, activities, service, GPA and aspirations post-graduation, Encinas was chosen as a Barrett Outstanding Graduate and as The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Dean’s Medalist in English.

“Zane Encinas is captivated and energized by the application of the humanities and the arts as powerful tools for environmental education,” wrote the Dean's Medalist selection committee.

We caught up with Encinas as they finished their coursework toward an expected 4.0 in all three majors to find out how they will put all these pieces together.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field?

Answer: Admittedly, my initial motivation for my chosen fields of study was premature and narrowminded. I had interests in philosophy, English and sustainability, but I understood them as disparate fields of inquiry. As I took more courses and interacted with faculty and students, I found myself using similar pattern identifying competencies as those used by ancient astronomers looking toward the stars. A constant cycle of “aha” moments revealed new connections between ideas, questions and values across different disciplines that in turn gave way to new discoveries about myself and my passions.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: Over the past four years, I have been taken aback by my recurrent encounters with the domineering pervasiveness of western philosophy and epistemology in each of my fields of study. It manifested itself in the largely unread lines of syllabus reading lists, my entrenchment in the meritocracy, definitions of concepts like literacy, etc. However, schools and colleges on campus like the School of Sustainability have recognized this history of epistemic injustice and are making laudable strides towards generating new pedagogical and research practices. This has greatly impacted my perspective of what it means to be an active participant in academia as a researcher, student, and teacher in relation to the communities I hope to work alongside.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: ASU's Environmental Humanities Initiative (EHI) has been one of the strongest draws for my continued attendance. EHI is home to faculty who have made some of the most significant contributions to the evolving field. They are not only accessible but excited to mentor and involve undergraduate students in their projects. Their commitment to interdisciplinary exploration and experimentation provided me the resources to navigate the disciplinary intersections that interested me most.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Coming into college, I could have never imagined the possibility of having my personal and career trajectory being changed so dramatically by a single individual as had ultimately occurred once I started working with (Associate Professor) Lekelia Jenkins. Her continued support and mentorship have empowered me to experiment with my own identity as an artist and researcher. More importantly, through her work, she has demonstrated a powerful challenge to the arbitrary artist/researcher distinction. I’ve witnessed both artists being researchers and researchers being artists in ways that I had previously overlooked. I am inspired by and deeply admire her pursuit of lifelong learning to become a better and more ethical mentor, educator, researcher and person.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: As an undergraduate, there seems to be an implicit acceptance that our academic and professional labor does not need to be justly compensated. There are far too many unpaid internships and research assistantship roles that take advantage of the quality work undergraduates produce. My advice is to seek out opportunities that pay or reach out to employers/faculty to see if they have access to any funds to pay you. You may be surprised to see how many faculty are willing to help support you financially for your work if you simply ask.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: I consider myself a connoisseur of study spots on campus, although it is more likely that I am just a highly ritualistic person that has unwarranted preference for obscure places on campus. I’ve spent most of my time this year in the silent study room in the Design Library during the week. During the weekend when there are no classes, I prefer the classrooms in the lower level of Hayden and SCOB (the Schwada Classroom Office Building) 228.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: During my gap year after graduation, I will be working at the Arizona Science Center as a learning and engagement specialist, where I will have the opportunity to work to bring the magic of science to resource-constrained communities. I then intend on attending graduate school to continue my work with environmental arts and education.

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