By ANNA SQUIRES
As long ago as 480 B.C., the Greek playwright Aeschylus gave us the now infamous advice: “Know thyself.” An interview with Colorado College alumnus Stephen Rijo ’13 demonstrates the power of just that—knowing yourself and following your interests—in shaping a meaningful career after college.
Rijo was an environmental policy major and anthropology minor at CC. As late as his junior year, Rijo thought he wanted to head to law school after graduation. But during his senior year, he discovered that his interest in sustainability matched his new studies in GIS—a broad descriptor for any geographic information system that allows users to analyze spatial or geographic data.
Rijo discovered that sustainability and GIS analysis could help make a larger impact on the environment than going to law school. Immediately after graduating in 2013, he headed to the University of Denver for a master’s program in geographic spatial analysis.
His thesis, titled Economic and Traffic Impacts Following the Installation of New Bicycle Facilities: A Denver Case Study, earned him a job with the City of Denver, where he now works as a Transportation Demand Management Program Administor. In simple terms, Rijo now works to make life in Denver friendlier for the environment by making it possible for people to choose transportation other than cars.
“My job is based around making it possible for people to not have to drive,” Rijo said. “And it’s fun to be able to throw resources at that.”
Rijo said that his environmental policy background from CC drives his interest to make transportation more sustainable. “Driving is a large part of people’s carbon footprint,” he said. “When you look at a completely backed-up highway like I-25, where everyone is alone in their own car, you think to yourself, ‘There has to be a better way.’”
Rijo enjoys implementing new transportation plans, like executing bike to work programs, mapping new lightrail lines, and educating the Denver public about driving alternatives. He said that his work is good for the environment, and good for people’s wallets, too.
“I like saving people money and also saving them time,” he said. “But the best part of my job is implementing a project —planning it, doing outreach, designing it, and finally seeing it implemented…It takes a long time, but at the end of the day, I see that all of the work is worth it.”
Rijo is glad that he chose to earn his master’s degree immediately after graduating from CC. He credits his self-knowledge in helping him to make the step. “I realized that if I didn’t get my master’s right away, I wouldn’t ever do it. I knew that about myself.”
But for those who are just becoming interested in sustainability and environmental work, or who do not plan to seek a master’s degree immediately, Rijo says that there is plenty of work to be done, regardless of experience level.
“There’s so much work to be done [in this sector] and so few people and resources to do it. You get to do a lot of work early on in your career…you work with challenging budgets and still manage to make projects happen.”
According to Rijo, those interested in working in the public sector should seek internships in the cities and local governments where they hope to work. He also recommends that if they are in a position to do academic work in sustainability, they target it towards their future professional goals. Rijo’s own master’s thesis studied the impact of easier access to bicycle facilities on Denver’s traffic patterns, which helped to land him a job with the city.
For those interested in environmental work, Rijo suggests gaining early experience with non-governmental organizations, which sometimes operate more nimbly than city and state governments.
Regardless of what career path those interested in sustainability choose, Rijo knows that the work is meaningful. “Solving an actual need for somebody really pays off in the long run,” he said.