As an American expatriate living in the mountains of Medellín, Colombia, sustainability graduate student Sam Holdren is well versed in what it takes to succeed in an online program that spans time zones and continents.
“You have to make sure you have a strong internet connection,” he says with a laugh, explaining that it is not always as easy as it sounds in a developing country.
Sam moved to Colombia from Phoenix in early 2015, after falling in love with the country during a Spanish immersion program in 2013. Soon after, he decided to start a business emphasizing sustainable tourism that protects and preserves the environment and local cultures.
“I thought I better become an expert in sustainability if my business was going to focus on it,” Sam explains. “I heard about ASU Online’s master’s degree in sustainability leadership. I’d been a Sun Devil for my previous higher education, which was all on campus. I liked that the online program would give me the flexibility to be able to work on my business abroad and get what I knew would be a solid education that is practical to my real-life experience.”
Sam’s business, Out in Columbia Travel, specifically aims to create life-changing and memorable experiences for the LGBT community. It seeks to promote cross-cultural exchanges for LGBT tourists from the United States that emphasize three key aspects of sustainability: protecting the environment, respecting local cultures, and investing in the local community.
“Joining ASU Online was ideal for giving me the foundation on what sustainability is and how to apply it to my current work context,” he says. “Everything I’m creating is directly supported by the academic program. The focus is on leadership development and personal growth, which is all helpful when building a team. I’ve learned that I’m a task-oriented leader, and that’s really important, but I also need to balance my style with people who are relationship-oriented.”
In June, Sam took his hands-on educational experience one step further with a summer abroad program in Ecuador — or winter, for those in the Southern Hemisphere. The month-long experience immersed him in the country’s diverse regions, from the Andes mountains to the Amazon rainforest, to the Pacific Coast, all with the goal of understanding the complexity of sustainable development.
“Ecuador neighbors Colombia, so although it’s a different country, there are a lot of similarities and shared history,” Sam says. “Everything about the trip was enlightening, particularly with regard to indigenous communities and how to respect and learn from those cultures.”
Another aspect of the tourism infrastructure that stood out to Sam involved the country’s access to clean water.
“Not every community had facilities to clean the water, so a lot of pollution would go into it,” he says. “But because of tourism, they realized they needed people to have the ability to do water-related activities. It’s all related — money, environment, community. Now they are investing in water treatment plants that can clean the water before it goes back into the river.”
As a requirement of his summer abroad program, Sam is building a photo essay website in conjunction with an independent study program. The essay documents sustainability strengths and weaknesses in Colombia and Ecuador, comparing the two countries. Additionally, he received a Walton Global Studies Scholarship to further his academic and professional goals.
“Even before graduation, I want to have an impact,” Sam says.
Ultimately, he hopes the completed website will be circulated in corporate America.
“It’s my hope that companies who are interested in promoting sustainability will look at Colombia as a place where they can fund projects,” he says. “I want to spark conversation around ways things can continue to be done well, and ways things can be improved.”