Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help: Alumna Melissa Olivar on Her Path as a Burgeoning Expert on Environmental Justice 


Melissa OlivarDon’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help: Alumna Melissa Olivar on Her Path as a Burgeoning Expert on Environmental Justice 

After witnessing first-hand the mistreatment experienced by her mother and other Mexican immigrants who work hard doing essential work for little pay, Melissa Olivar was determined to earn a Bachelor’s Degree and make a better life for herself and her family. Having a natural inclination toward science, she started as a chemistry major but later switched to sociology and international studies. At the Colin Powell School she became a Koch Fellow and Climate Policy Fellow and studied abroad in Costa Rica. Through these programs, she received guidance and support that helped her complete internships that focused on the intersection of environmental sustainability and social justice. She is now pursuing a master’s degree and aims to earn a doctorate and dedicate her career to advancing knowledge in environmental sustainability and helping other students like herself to pursue their passions. 

Please share a little about your background and what brought you to City College.

I am a first generation college student and the daughter of Mexican immigrants. My parents have taught me how to chase my dreams and maintain humility along the way, and to have strength and perseverance in the face of challenges. I have seen and experienced the challenges that undocumented immigrants face in the United States, including the lack of respect immigrants receive in the workplace. Undocumented immigrants are often underpaid and work long hours. I used to help clean houses with my mother and saw how she was unfairly treated. I learned that employers often have little hope for the children of immigrants; they think immigrant children will end up taking the same trajectories as their parents, so they subject them to the same unequal treatment. This experience motivated me to pursue a higher degree so that I can be able to provide a better life for myself and family. Once I entered college, I was motivated to break this idea and use my academic talents to obtain my Bachelors Degree. Initially, I came to City College because I knew it would be affordable. I planned to study Chemistry and become a pharmacologist. I knew that CCNY had a phenomenal science department and I was eager to be part of it. I later changed my major to a double major in Sociology and International Studies, with a minor in Human Rights Studies. 

What motivated you to change your major and dedicate yourself to social change?
My goal is to become an educator and help students, specifically low income students find their passions while in college. I want to give students the tools to become agents of change in their own communities. Moreover, I want to increase the representation of women of color in academia. I have noticed the minimal representation of minorities in universities and would like to change that. I am currently enrolled in a two year Master’s Program at St. John’s University. I am majoring in Environmental Sustainability and Decision Making. Moreover, I accepted a graduate assistantship position where I will be leading discussions on social justice in areas such as the environment. After completing my master’s degree I plan to pursue a PhD in Latin American Studies. I would like to conduct research that helps affect policy changes, environmental change, and activism for poor, minority communities. I hope that through my work I can inspire other people of my background to pursue their dreams just like my advisors, teachers, mentors and family have done with me.

How did the Colin Powell School help you to pursue your goals?
My education at City College helped me immensely when it came to ensuring that I was given internship experience where I researched and presented projects and papers that discussed racial equality and the environment. I was able to intern in wonderful organizations and institutions such as Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Fort Greene Park Conservancy, and Columbia University. I was an Edward I. Koch Fellow and I later received the Colin Powell School Climate Policy Fellowship, both of which gave me valuable guidance and support. I also had the opportunity to study abroad in Costa Rica in 2019 and take a biology course. It was the first time that I fully understood the impact of interdisciplinary research when it came to connecting the physical sciences to the social sciences.

How have you been involved with the City College community since graduating?
I am a part of a support team with the Climate Policy Fellows program, working alongside Trevor Houser. As the school gradually opens back up, I would love to attend in person alumni events at the Colin Powell School to talk with current students about my experience at the college and in graduate school.

What advice do you have for current and future students?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help and ask questions. Often students are under the impression that they are bothering faculty, but in reality professors are excited and have valuable resources for their students. I emphasize this point because it took me until my junior year to really become comfortable asking questions, and I wish that I had done it sooner.

Subscribe to podcast via RSS

<< Back to blog