Graduate student in the spotlight: Professional Development Peer Nicole Poletto

by Shawn Warner, Director of Professional Development
Monday, October 31, 2016 4:03 PM

​Meet Nicole Poletto – Bren student, figure skater extraordinaire, and the Graduate Division's new Professional Development Peer Advisor. Nicole graduated from Villanova University and is now a second-year student at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management specializing in Energy and Climate, Strategic Environmental Communication & Media, and Eco-Entrepreneurship. ​Nicole sat down with us to talk about how she got her start in environmental science, her favorite things about grad school, and what her ​goals are as the Professional Development Peer.

Tell us a little about your family​ and upbringing.

I was born and raised in San Diego, CA, and I was over-involved in extracurricular activities such as tennis, ballet, piano, and – most of all – ice skating. My twin sister and I started figure skating when we were 4 years old. I competed as a synchronized skater (like synchronized swimming but on ice) at the national level for a few years in addition to skating individually and with an ice dancing partner. Luckily, my family members were always my biggest fans and my dedication to sports and school really taught me time management at a young age, a skill I’ve been thankful for throughout my school career.

Skating on the beach: Only in San Diego!What events ​have had a big impact on you and helped shape who you are today?

After I graduated college, I applied to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest for a year of service in Portland, Oregon. I lived in a community with 6 other people that rapidly became my family. I learned nonviolent communication, how to make decisions as a group, and how to live on a personal stipend of $100 a month. More than anything else in my life, that year changed, shaped, and molded my development as a person. I fell in love with ​being at an environmental nonprofit, teaching hands-on stream and wetland restoration to K-12 students. We would have class in the rain, hail, ​or sunshine, which often meant that I was freezing and covered in mud. I absolutely loved it and was lucky enough to stay and coordinate that education program for an additional 2 years after my AmeriCorps year was complete.

Tell us a little about your research.

I am completing an Eco-Entrepreneurship project at the Bren School which aims to simultaneously solve both a customer and environmental problem. My group and I are assessing nature-deficit disorder and the growing trend of children moving indoors and on screens. Inspired by personal experience in environmental education, we are seeking to reverse this trend by bringing video games to life in the great outdoors through our proposed business, BranchOut. BranchOut will utilize many of aspects of popular video games – such as fun and engaging storylines, teamwork, and an achievement system that rewards completion of tasks – without sitting in front of a screen for hours on end. We are currently preparing a pilot project for winter quarter at both the Orfalea Children’s Center on the UCSB campus and the Botanic Garden in downtown Santa Barbara.

Nicole Poletto and fellow BranchOut thesis group member Rick Thomas presenting their ideas on a novel approach to nature-deficit disorder solutions in St. Paul, MN.What has graduate student life been like for you?

Graduate student life has mostly been full of free bagels and pizza – any form of free carbs and cheese and I’m there (apologies to the gluten-free and vegan folks). But in all seriousness, despite the overdose on free food, I’ve been really grateful for the friendships I’ve formed in the vibrant graduate student community here at UCSB. My support system is always helping me find a balance between getting my work done and getting outside to explore the beach or the mountains in order to let off some steam.

What do you like most about grad school?

One of my favorite things about grad school is how most of the learning occurs outside of the classroom. We are presented with endless opportunities to create a network of people that have a very broad range in interests. In addition to getting outside of your department and meeting other people, there are tons of talks and lectures that allow the opportunity to expand your horizon. And while sometimes I am annoyed by having to ride my bike to and from school in the cold (as a California baby, I freeze in 60-degree weather), I always find myself always grateful for the forced daily exercise and fresh air.

Who is your hero and why?

I was lucky enough to work with an incredible man in Portland named Steve Kennett who taught me everything I know about watershed restoration. Despite how stressful our job could be, he met every day with humor and compassion, putting the community first. Fueled by his love for the environment and effecting positive change in communities, he continues to inspire me to this day as he works tirelessly at Dig In, a nonprofit in Portland that we founded with our colleagues this year.

Nicole planting native trees and shrubs with local K-12 students in Portland, Oregon.Name an accomplishment you are most proud of and why.

Something that meant a lot to me was when a student confessed that I inspired her to enroll in a small environmental college in Maine through my environmental education program. Ultimately, my goal as an educator was to empower my students to learn about the world around them and to see how they could make a difference in it through hands-on learning. I was very humbled and honored to be a part of her journey over the years while she was simultaneously a part of mine.

What are some of your hobbies?

Grad school can certainly be stressful. I’ve been lucky enough to live close to the Ellwood Bluffs and Butterfly Grove since I moved to Santa Barbara, and I love wandering down the paths and walking the beach. It always blows my mind how far you can walk up and down the relatively deserted coastline. Otherwise you will find me jamming to The Head and the Heart, grabbing a beer at a brewery, or watching one of my favorite TV shows.

What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?

I was born on the very same day as my best friend who lived down the street. Our moms were best friends before we were born so along with my twin sister, the three of us grew up as triplets. In high school, we started a nonprofit organization for teens with Asperger’s syndrome to make friends in a nonthreatening social environment. We coordinated bi-weekly social activities and events and received an award from the San Diego chapter of the Autism Society of America.

​What do you hope to be doing 5 or 10 years out of graduate school?

I eventually foresee myself working at a nonprofit building climate change resiliency in local communities. I would love to ultimately be an informal educator in some capacity on the West Coast.

Explain what you do in your role as Professional Development Peer.

As the Professional Development Peer, I will be hosting workshops on professional development topics such as creating and maintaining a CV, crafting your digital reputation, and preparing for the academic job market. I will also be assisting the Graduate Division plan and implement large campus events such as Grad Slam and the Beyond Academia career exploration conference. My goal is to ensure that all grad students are aware of, and take advantage of, all the the Graduate Division resources offered on campus. Professional development isn’t something to focus on right before the job search. It is important to build your skills and confidence over time – especially because you never know when your next great opportunity could present itself.

Nicole and her twin sister, Christine enjoying the great and rainy outdoors.