Danielle Andrews-Brown: Helping Students Grow
When Danielle Andrews-Brown began her studies at South Carolina State University, she imagined herself as a doctor. But the formaldehyde and dead animals in her anatomy class disgusted her, so she found herself looking outward.
During her sophomore year in 2001, Andrews-Brown discovered a passion for environmental science through a summer program at the Savannah River Site. A teacher in charge of the program personally invited her to attend.
“I really fell in love with environmental science in its entirety,” Andrews-Brown said. “Then I focused on soil and water while continuing my studies.”
Andrews-Brown grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, located just off the coast of Venezuela. She left home after graduating from high school and immigrated to the United States in 2000 for what would become a successful career as an environmental scientist, academic advisor, and professor at Pitt.
Trinidad is a small nation the size of Delaware with a population of about 1.3 million, according to Andrews-Brown. She said that all citizens of Trinidad share a national sense of culture, but when she came to America and realized that there was no “particular American culture”, she had trouble hard to find a group to identify with.
“We celebrate each other all the time, and we can do some things differently, but the country as a whole has a culture that we all identify with,” Andrews-Brown said. “It wasn’t like that in the United States when I came here, and it was really difficult to transition into this space.”
After graduating from SC State in 2004, Andrews-Brown left South Carolina and moved to the University of Kentucky to receive her master’s degree in plant and soil science. She said her master’s project focused on stream restoration and it was her favorite research experience.
Andrews-Brown earned her Ph.D. in 2011 from Pennsylvania State University in Soil Sciences, where she remained a postdoctoral fellow and research associate until the unexpected death of her mother in 2015. Following this experience, Andrews-Brown decided to spend a year in South Africa with her husband, who had already planned to conduct a study abroad experience there through Penn State.
While in South Africa, she received notices from colleagues at Penn State regarding a job offer for an environmental studies program coordinator at Pitt. Even though the position was not research-oriented, Andrews-Brown decided to apply anyway.
“I thought I needed a change, a fresh start, because my mom and I were really close and it really threw me into a loop,” Andrews-Brown said. “My husband was still working for Penn State at the time and he was going to be overseas for a year…so I took the opportunity to travel with him.”
Andrews-Brown said Pitt offered her the job in 2016. She began working as an environmental studies program advisor and coordinator in 2017 and has remained with Pitt ever since.
“I have mentored and advised students, but not in the official capacity that I do now. I think research was my love, but for personal reasons I just needed a change,” Andrews-Brown said. “It felt like a great opportunity to try something different while still being able to use the skills I had developed along the way.”
Since Andrews-Brown had never lived in a big city before moving to Pittsburgh, she said it took her a while to get used to living in a “concrete jungle.” She had never resided in a place with the constant noise of traffic and small trees. But she quickly noticed how friendly everyone in Pittsburgh was and said her students were the reason she stayed all these years.
“I love how students are able to influence decision-making and really advocate for the things they want. While this may happen slower than we’d like, we see these changes because students advocated for it,” Andrews-Brown said.
Nearly 20 years ago, Pitt received an endowment from the Heinz Endowments to form the environmental studies program, according to Andrews-Brown. She said it originally served as a “catch-all” for all students interested in anything environmental and was very scientific.
Andrews-Brown said that about a year or two before she joined Pitt, the University created a major in environmental studies. She took the opportunity to make the new major more interdisciplinary and offer a wider range of course options, including natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities.
“If you’re interested in the environment, but aren’t just a scientist, you can still find a place in this major,” Andrews-Brown said. “It’s focused on politics, sustainability, environmental justice, etc. and not just environmental science.”
Andrews-Brown said she is currently working on renaming the environmental studies major to incorporate the term “sustainability” and provide even more elective choices. While she noted that undergraduate board approval is required for any official changes to be made, it is “currently in the works.”
“That’s what the major is when you look at how it compares to sustainability majors across the United States,” Andrews-Brown said. “We are working on renaming the program – much of it will be the same, but the way students choose their electives and things like that will be even more personalized and personalized than it is.”
In addition to serving as the program’s advisor and coordinator, Andrews-Brown also teaches a writing course called “Communication for Environmental Professionals” and oversees all internships that take place within the program.
She said the course is mainly focused on professional development and skills, where she only assigns writing pieces that will prepare students for the business world. Andrews-Brown said she doesn’t want students to have a lot of work to do outside of class and uses many guest speakers who are experts in areas such as grant writing and writing. CVs or cover letters.
“My class is really personalized,” Andrews-Brown said. “While everyone is doing the same thing, students progress at very different rates and start with very different skills. I work with students at the pace they need.
Melanie Malsch, a Pitt alumna, took this course as a junior and worked as a teaching assistant as a senior. Malsch worked closely with Andrews-Brown during her time in the environmental studies program, and said Andrews-Brown made sure she got “what she wanted” from her degree.
Malsch, an environmental studies major, studied abroad as a freshman and completed her internship at Pitt’s study abroad office. She said Andrews-Brown helped her understand how to link sustainability and environmental aspects in the internship, since it was not environmentally focused. Andrews-Brown also helped Malsch create an “environment-themed” workshop for students who have or wanted to study abroad.
“She contributed a lot and added to the experience, which was not asked of her,” Malsch said. “She was just doing this for support and she ended up being a big part of it.”
After Andrews-Brown helped Malsch coordinate the workshop, she brought in her husband to speak as a guest speaker for the writing class. A former Penn State Assistant Professor of Geography and Research Associate, he led a science study abroad program while at Penn State called “Parks and People.” She connected Malsch and her husband to talk about shared experiences abroad and international education prospects, which Malsch said was very impactful.
“It allowed me to really broaden my horizons and my perspectives on the impact of this experience [studying abroad] could be in that area, even if it’s a bit unconventional,” Malsch said. “She encouraged me in this secondary passion that I had because of my own personal experiences and helped connect it to my degree.”
Another Andrews-Brown student and advisor is Samuel Cohen, a senior environmental studies student. Cohen said she wrote him letters of recommendation for graduate school applications and “always” tailors a student’s journey through the major to suit her own interests.
“She was more than willing and happy to polish up the major, write exceptions for things, get exemptions for things, so I could take classes that would be a little better suited to my personal goals, and she does it for everyone,” Cohen says.
Andrews-Brown is also a founder and co-chair of the Environmental Studies Department’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee. The committee is in the process of organizing listening sessions to find solutions to the issues raised in a survey open to all members of the department.
“It was recognized that things can be much better than they are now, and myself and the rest of the committee are all working together to make the department a place where people feel comfortable and welcome” , said Andrews-Brown.
According to Andrews-Brown, she has managed to engage in very positive interactions with students over the past five years of working at Pitt, which she does by ensuring that students are not too overwhelmed with the work.
“If something happens in their life, I can talk to them about accommodations to make sure they have a successful semester,” Andrews-Brown said. “I know they know I care about myself, and that’s the most important thing to me.”