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Desert enthusiast earns scholarship to Oxford to grow love of biophilia

May 04, 2022

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

Connecting people to nature fuels William Walker VI. Growing up in the Phoenix suburb of Ahwatukee, exploring the nation’s largest municipal park — South Mountain Park and Preserve — which is also one of the largest in the world, created a love for nature and the environment which he now plans to make his life’s mission.

Walker is graduating with his Bachelor of Science in sustainability from the School of Sustainability and a minor in French, he plans to take his magnetic smile across the pond to pursue his master’s at the University of Oxford in England. And the best part is his hard work and relentless pursuit of excellence has led to a full scholarship to fund his Ivy League graduate studies in MSc in sustainability, enterprise and the environment.

He leaves behind a standing legacy for ASU students through a course that he created, called Intersectional Environmentalism and Sustainability, that focuses on environmental justice principles in underrepresented minorities and the environment. 

Walker says he credits his parents for all their support along the way.

He took a moment to sit down with us in his favorite spot on campus, the Secret Garden, which is not really a secret anymore but nonetheless, where he spent countless hours connecting to nature and refueling his mind and body at ASU.

Graduate William Walker VI heads to Oxford on full-ride scholarship

During his time at ASU, Walker created a course called Intersectional Environmentalism and Sustainability.

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: I chose ASU because I wanted to study sustainability in the Sonoran Desert and delve deeper into social-ecological challenges. Arizona State University gave me a holistic perspective on sustainability while balancing themes such as justice, social impact, and the importance of biodiversity.

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

A: In my junior year, I joined the JEDI workgroup for the School of Sustainability as an undergraduate chair member. In our first meeting, we discussed how the school has done little to acknowledge the contribution of underprivileged identities in academia. I advocated for the idea of a course that studied the intersections of race and identity and how different communities experience sustainability. I suggested that we move quickly to offer this new course in the upcoming spring semester and make it student-led, faculty-advised.

It usually takes 18 months for a class to get approval. However, I received apt support from Sonja Klinsky, a (School of Sustainability) faculty member, and developed the course, without any prerequisites, to be accessible to anyone at my university while being inclusive of all degree levels, such as undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students. I was able to successfully enroll 21 students in the course.

After facilitating part of the class, I handed it over to the students where they split into teams to teach a class. Collectively, we brought in guest speakers and learned about topics such as ecofeminism, leadership from indigenous communities, and land stewardship. The collaborative learning approach and integration of guest speakers from local organizations made us immerse ourselves in the topic. An idea I thought was ambitious at the time only scratched the surface of my potential and made me learn that my leadership prevails when I amplify the voices of others.

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

A: Dr. Milan Shrestha taught me the importance of environmental sustainability with anthropological approaches. Dr. Shrestha taught me to look at how history, global economies and policies have shaped the world we see today and to unpack those stories.

Q: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

A: My “aha” moment was when I took an AP environmental science class in high school. We learned about environmental justice, which sparked a passion in me and propelled me to advocate and learn from others.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends, or just thinking about life?                                                                                  

A: My favorite spot on campus is the Secret Garden because it integrates diverse plant and bird species in a place where I can experience environmental well-being. I go here weekly to reflect before a class, take in the sun and watch the birds. My favorite spot for power studying is in the Art and Design Library.

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

A: Universities are epicenters of innovation, diversity, and opportunity. It is a rare chance in your life to search for parts of your purpose and define some of your passions. You are often provided with numerous experiences on a silver platter. All you have to do is experiment to discover what you like and dislike. Take every chance and opportunity in your power because you will grow and find out where your leadership prevails.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Upon graduating from ASU, I will be attending the University of Oxford to pursue an MSc in sustainability, enterprise and the environment. I will advance conservation by working with social impact companies, philanthropists and policymakers to make access to nature more equitable and sustainable. Long-term, I intend to promote sustainable development and social justice by providing agency to communities historically excluded from the environmental movement or have experienced environmental injustices.

Lack of collaboration between stakeholders often obstructs access to resources for those who most need them; in particular, I plan to advance sustainable development through initiatives that promote community engagement and urban conservation. By working with organizations such as World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Conservation International, I hope to provide funding to underserved communities to conduct environmental projects that advance urban forests, green buildings, transportation planning, and renewable energy plans. I draw inspiration from models such as Conservation International and WWF, which place Indigenous communities at the forefront of their conservation practices. They connect them to technology, funding opportunities, training, and resources to promote their projects and traditional knowledge.

This engagement is crucial to sustainable development because it supports how humans are developed first. I aim to achieve a similar type of collaboration where I work alongside communities to achieve their environmental goals.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would advance economic and environmental empowerment for historically-excluded communities by providing grants and resources for environmental impact projects. I believe there is a role for sustainability practitioners to have a justice component in the bulk of their work. They should also participate in community participatory action research where community members are leaders addressing challenges they deem necessary.

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