Pursuing Sustainability Through Adversity

By Heather Sowalla | Editorial

Sometimes I feel like my life has been that of a story book. I have traveled near and far – up mountains and down rivers. It might have been Rachel Carson that set the love for the environment ablaze in my heart, or possibly my grandfather’s love of travel. One thing is for certain: my life has led me on an amazing journey. My name is Heather Sowalla. I am twenty-seven years old and currently a graduate student at the University of Illinois, Springfield.

I believe what Sandra Postel wrote about how we react to the world around us: “For many of us, water simply flows from a faucet, and we think little about it beyond this point of contact. We have lost a sense of respect for the wild river, for the complex workings of a wetland, for the intricate web of life that has water supports.” That statement is how I feel deep inside my bones. I need to help make a difference and in a way the world has changed and I have changed as well.

When I began college I developed a passion for the environment and the wildlife that exist there. I worked as a fisheries management intern in Alaska, the holy grail you might say, for how life should be; without the pollution and concrete of modern civilizations. Stepping out of the float plane in Port Alsworth, Alaska I was taken out of the twenty-first century and thrown into a time where life was much different. We lived off the land, depended on good harvests. Though for me it was only a three month experience I long to return one day.

“By educating others I’m able to change the direction that the world is moving in – and that’s my goal.”

After earning my Bachelor of Science from the American Military University in Environmental Studies focusing in Fish and Wildlife Management, I was struck by a disease that changed my life and the direction I was going in forever. I was forced to take a step back and reevaluate my life, but that was not a bad thing. Being diagnosed with a rare autoimmune neurological disorder (Neuromyelitis Optica) changed my life. I was no longer able to work in the field in Alaska like I did that first and second summer of my undergrad career and so I was forced to change direction. I could barely walk at first. I was like a newborn baby and had to be taught all over again after a flair of my disease. Not only that, but from time to time I loose my vision all together due to optic neuritis and my world goes black. Despite this, I knew that I wanted to stick in the environmental field, and so I came to the University of Illinois, Springfield where I fell in love with a new discipline: Sustainable Policy and Design.

I wouldn’t be working in the field sleeping in tents, but this would still allow me to make a difference in the world around me. By educating others I’m able to change the direction that the world is moving in – and that’s my goal. I’m passionate about sustainable agriculture systems in particular and have even begun working on my family farm in Pennsylvania – moving in a direction that is not only sustainable but organic as well. It’s my hope that by doing so we’ll be able to introduce fresh goods and services to the local food systems.

I look forward to working with PowerHouse Growers over the next few months, and I can’t wait to share my journey with you.

About The Author

My name I Heather Sowalla. I have a passion for the environment starting from the time I was a young girl. I fell in love with hiking and fishing, even playing with bugs! As I grew older my passions began to develop into something that I could mold my education around. Starting with my undergrad degree I focused on fish and wildlife management which took me from central Pennsylvania the entire way to Alaska for an internship with the Student Conservation Association. After that I decided, due to health reasons, that I needed a change of pace and so I moved in a direction of sustainability, in particular agriculture and food security and now as I work through my internship - I plan on graduating in the Spring of 2015 with my Masters. What will I do after that? Well ... I'm not really sure. Maybe I will be the next great of the Environmental Era? Maybe not ... but I will do my best to try!