University of Waterloo: Making empowering choices in environmental education

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For Celine Isimbi, an undergrad student, studying in the Faculty of Environment offered her the perfect opportunity to balance her studies and work in environmental liberation.

Celine IsimbiIsimbi has always been passionate about the humanities and social sciences. She initially wanted to become a pediatrician and work with children. But after becoming a young biologist at her local aquarium in South Africa, Isimbi slowly recognized her passion for learning about the environment and geographical sciences.

“I knew that whatever I did, geography would be involved or some sort of social sciences,” Isimbi says. “Something that would involve working towards a better world environmentally.”

Coming to the University of Waterloo
The University of Waterloo was on her shortlist of Canadian universities she applied to while still enrolled at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Her decision became clear as Waterloo was the only institution with a Faculty of Environment throughout Canada.

“The University website was very helpful because I had already researched the program and what type of topics are taught and who teaches these courses,” Isimbi says. “They also have these videos that explains what you can get out of the Faculty of Environment and hear from previous students.”

Isimbi is pursuing a joint honours degree in the Environment, Resources and Sustainability program and the Geography and Environmental Management program.

“I think this was the best place for me because I could customize my degree to my liking without losing track of why I wanted to study in the program,” Isimbi says.

Research in space-place relations
As a Black student with ancestral roots in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Isimbi acknowledges how her identity and experiences has helped shape her role as an environmentalist and the meaningful research she conducts within her studies.

Isimbi’s research explores the relationship between people and the environment and, in turn, advocates for climate and environmental justice and the impact it has on Black, Indigenous and other racialized communities.

“When we understand the history of things that impact on us today, people will start to pay attention to how a place can be racialized, gendered and classed,” Isimbi says. “We can see this within the Black, Indigenous and other racialized communities, mostly immigrant communities in Canada, and how they live near dangerous areas.”

Isimbi says her research work has undergone significant changes during the pandemic and the rise of different social movements. For example, within the Kitchener-Waterloo region, people are advocate for more affordable homes, especially among the racialized communities and those residing in housing encampments.

Balancing study and work in racial advocacy and equity
As Isimbi enters her fourth year at Waterloo, she is most proud of her on-campus work in racial advocacy. She does this through her co-op placement in the EDI-R office, and as both a member and director of advocacy for Racial Advocacy for Inclusion, Solidarity and Equity.

She encourages incoming and current students to take a few classes at Waterloo with a racial equity framework. One class she remembers fondly was taught by Dr. Christopher Taylor, who is now the Associate Vice-President of the Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Anti-Racism (EDI-R) office. “Dr. Christopher Taylor was an amazing educator where his students learned in his class without feeling too rigid and too structured but felt like a conversation where you actually take things out of the lesson.”

Isimbi recommends taking classes with Dr. Kelsey Leonard, a professor in the Faculty of Environment and who advocates for Indigenous water rights and Dr. Naila Keleta-Mae, a professor in the Faculty of Arts, who has expertise is in race, gender and performance.

While she advises new students to enjoy their university experience by joining clubs and services to meet new people and professors, Isimbi also shares one piece of advice:

“Be realistic about the outcome you want out of your involvement in school by understanding that it can be time-consuming, but it can also be mentally, emotionally and socially draining – know your limit.”

After graduation, Isimbi hopes to continue to use her education and co-op experiences to help communities dismantle existing environmental barriers. “But I would also like to run a coffee shop by the beach one day and have a food garden that feeds people sustainably while working on environmental education.”

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