Erin Rugland, alumni, School of Public Affairs, Arizona State University

Alumni spotlight: '18 grad combines interests in environment, policy, justice issues in research fellowship


Mark J. Scarp

While she was an ASU student, Erin Rugland was so concerned about issues involving the environment, policy and justice that she was always finding ways to combine her interests in those areas, even while taking a course that wasn’t about any of them.

“Because of this, I felt an ever-growing expansion in my understanding about the connections between natural resources, the policies and institutions that govern them and larger social forces like power and control,” said Rugland, a research fellow at the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy at the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy.

“I’ve internalized these things and continue to reflect on them almost every day, either through my current work or through current events and climate change,” said Rugland, who graduated in 2018 with a Bachelor of Science degree in public service and public policy (sustainability) from the School of Public Affairs (SPA). That same year she also earned a Bachelor of Science degree in justice studies from the School of Social Transformation (SST) in The College of Arts and Sciences.

Rugland is one of 18 members of the most recent cohort of Arizona Forward’s 2020-2021 Emerging Sustainability Leaders program. Members will gain skills they will apply to advance sustainability where they work and in the communities they serve.

Read on to learn more about Rugland, her position as a research fellow and how her time at ASU has influenced her career:


Q.  Tell us a little about yourself today and your early years.

A.   Both personally and professionally, my interests lie in the environment and in politics. I remember being exposed to the field of environmental policy in a high school advanced-placement environmental science textbook and it was like an “aha” moment. From there, I went to college with the goal of being an environmental lawyer, which drove my decisions about what to major in, what classes to take and even my extracurriculars. I gradually learned that law was not the kind of work I wanted to do and now I’ve translated my interest in the environment and politics into a career in urban planning. 

Q. Tell us about what you do for the Babbitt Center/Lincoln Institute.

A.  I analyze the intersection of water, land and governance in urban planning and water management to support community resilience in the face of drought and climate change. In practice, this means I do research, write guidance and policy documents to help inform practitioners and policymakers in decision-making, lead workshops and offer consultations and technical assistance to communities for specific projects or policy changes.

Q. How did your time at Watts College prepare you for life after college?

A. In addition to the classes offered by the Watts College, I was part of the Environmental Justice and Policy Initiative research group. Working with Professors Joanna Lucio, Yushim Kim and Elizabeth Corley and other students in this group gave me experience in research into urban planning processes and outcomes. This is still my main area of work, although my focus has shifted specifically to the connections between water resource management and urban planning.

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

A.  I started with a major in the School of Sustainability and knew that I wanted to pursue a career in environmental policy. As I took classes within the school, my drive toward policy just became stronger and stronger until I knew I had to switch from majoring in sustainability to majoring in public policy. Adding justice studies as a major as well provided an additional sociology lens to my studies in both policy and sustainability.

Q. Why did you choose ASU?

A.    I chose ASU because of in-state tuition and the merits of Barrett, The Honors College. And then I got a lot more out of it than just cost savings and the academics! 

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

A.    Don’t be afraid to reach out to people you’ve never met before for opportunities or to network! My current job started from an internship I got in school, that I applied for by “cold-emailing” my now-supervisor. It never hurts to shoot your shot with an organization or person, even if you don’t have a strong, existing connection to them.

Q.   If you had college to experience all over again, what would you do differently? The same?

A.    I truly feel like I got the most out of my college experience and really took advantage of all that ASU had to offer. I tailored my classes to my interests, I did multiple research projects, had a student job and I was the president of a student organization. If I had to do things differently, though, I would choose environmental science as one of my majors. With my interest in environmental policy, a stronger science background would be very beneficial, although it’s not essential.

Q.   Tell us about the achievements since graduating you are proudest of. Why?

A.   I have published two major reports/guidance manuals with another on the way. The first one was adopted as official guidance by the state of Colorado in early 2019. It’s amazing to turn my research into practical tools for local governments, and even more incredible that it can be officiated on a statewide basis. I was also recently selected as an Emerging Sustainability Leader by Arizona Forward, which is not only an honor, but a great learning opportunity and way to feel connected to sustainability and local government professionals outside of my field during the pandemic.

Q. What will most benefit you and your career from the Arizona Forward program?

A. The most immediate benefit is that the program is a consistent learning and networking opportunity, which I find to be particularly valuable during the pandemic. Beyond that, I’m excited to continue to learn and grow with my cohort, even after the program is over, using our cross-disciplinary expertise to tackle Arizona’s sustainability challenges.

     Q. If you could clone yourself, what other career would you pursue?

A. f I could clone myself, my clone would be a super hippy-dippy massage therapist, yoga instructor and organic vegan personal chef for my current self! I enjoy doing all those things, so the clone wouldn’t just be a personal assistant —she’d get fulfillment out of it!

Mark J. Scarp is media relations officer for the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions. Photo courtesy of Erin Rugland.