Jennifer Lenhart '07 (USA) and Tahia Devisscher '07 (Bolivia)
"MESPOM is not just an education, it is a lifestyle; it is a family of students, professors and alumni."
In September 2005, I joined MESPOM along with 30 other international students in the “guinea pig” batch. We were the first to test MESPOM’s attempt to combine various disciplines and international institutions to create a new and challenging form of academic excellence in the environmental field. Equally, MESPOM prioritized relationship building. As alumni in the 10 batches that followed can attest, MESPOM is not just an education, it is a lifestyle; it is a family of students, professors and alumni. Years later, we become work colleagues or meet at conferences; we connect when visiting each other’s native countries or new residences; we attend each others weddings and celebrate each others’ successes. As MESPOMers, we have instant friends when moving to a new city, sharing a beer or a coffee while describing our favorite fieldtrip, travel story, or our passion to be a small part of positive change. MESPOM is a dynamic and evolving community with many wonderful faces and identities. Still, there is one face that has most defined my MESPOM experience.
In September 2005, I also met my best friend, Tahia Devisscher. We met the first day in Budapest, learning that we shared the same diving instructor in Honduras, and participated as virtual classmates in an online course a few years prior. We each have a mixed identity linking Europe and the Americas, her parents from Bolivia and Belgium, mine from USA and Sweden. By the end of the first week we were inseparable: becoming flatmates, studying together, exploring Budapest and Central Europe, and growing as individuals and as environmental experts. Ten years on, we have taken different paths professionally, but meet regularly: attending UN Climate Change Conferences; speaking at Erasmus Mundus Alumni (EMA) events, having both held leadership roles; or visiting each other in Amsterdam and Oxford. We have each held several professional roles, and recently pursued PhDs in the climate change field, albeit in somewhat different topics.
In July 2015, I defended my PhD entitled, Urban Climate Governance: the Role of Local Authorities at Wageningen University (the Netherlands). In the Dutch system, PhD candidates select two paranymphs (think academic bridesmaids) to stand by their side during the public defense. Tahia was the obvious selection. I needed my Pachamama by my side. During MESPOM and in the years that followed, she has laughed with me, inspired me, believed in me and challenged me.
In February 2016, Tahia defended her PhD at University of Oxford, entitled Wildfire under a Changing Climate in the Bolivian Chiquitania: A Social-Ecological Systems Analysis. While PhD defenses are closed in the UK system, we spent the prior weekend together, having both relocated to the Pacific Northwest. Thanks to modern technology, I was happy to hear of her successful defense and celebration. I can’t wait until we can celebrate in person!
This is the strength of MESPOM: while distance eventually separates us as we go on to pursue our own passions – envisioning sustainable cities, working on climate change adaptation or monitoring forest ecosystems to name a few – we continue to support each other. We evolve into new roles and responsibilities, while knowing that the MESPOM community is behind us. I have found this support and solidarity in MESPOM’s students, its alumni, its professors – and most of all, in my best friend and Pachamama, Dr. Tahia Devisscher!