A Q&A with two-time intern of the Mickey Leland Environmental Internship Program Cristina Barrera

Cristina Barrera graduated in 2017 from Southern Methodist University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies. She interned with TCEQ’s Mickey Leland Environmental Internship Program in 2015 and 2016 and is currently attending the Yale School of the Environment for a master’s degree in environmental management. I asked Barrera about all things MLEIP—from what she learned during the two summers she interned at TCEQ to how those internships helped her focus her interest in the environment on a smaller niche.

Tell me a little about yourself.
I grew up just outside of Austin, where I learned to love hiking, kayaking, soccer, and live music. I figured out that I wanted to work in the environmental field at a really young age, beginning with my favorite bedtime story – “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss. That was reinforced by my experiences with Girl Scouts, environmental clubs and courses throughout high school. I went to SMU knowing I wanted to work at the intersection of business and the environment. I decided to pursue a master’s degree at Yale School of Environment to further my knowledge on how to foster social progress and environmental stewardship both professionally and personally.

Where did you intern and what was your role?

I interned at TCEQ in the Ambient Monitoring Division and the Petroleum Storage Tank Division. In AMD, I was helping find locations to place air monitoring trailers to provide important air quality data and meet state implementation plan requirements for sulfur dioxide (SO₂) monitoring. For PST, I got to help review underground petroleum storage tank site data to ensure sites met state regulations and notified sites about needed remediation if they did not meet the required standards.

Why did you apply to MLEIP?

I applied because it was a well-established, paid environmental internship program. In general, there were not a lot of internships specific to the environmental field when I was in undergrad and those that were available were often unpaid, so MLEIP felt like a perfect opportunity. I re-applied for a second year because I felt I learned so much about air and environmental policy during the program that I wanted to do it again but hoped to gain experience with the Office of Waste during my second year.

How do you feel the internship has impacted your life so far?

The internship was a great foot-in-the-door for getting into the environmental field. In addition to that, MLEIP was just my first foray into the professional world and informed how I operate in a professional setting. The experience I gained at MLEIP undoubtedly helped me get my other jobs and internships and ultimately contributed to me ending up at my dream school, Yale School of the Environment.

Did you have a mentor and what did you learn from them?

My mentors were my managers, Holly Landut and Michelle Ogee. Apart from learning a lot about their respective subject matter for two summers, I was inspired by having two awesome female managers to look up to so early in my career. Some of my unofficial mentors were Bria Patterson, Jeff Beckage, Ryan Kraft, and Morgan Shum, who helped create a genuinely welcoming work environment for early-career employees.

What are you doing now?

I am currently interning as a summer sustainability consultant at One Point Five, a sustainability advisory firm. I am so excited to be working in an impact-driven space and helping to make sustainability accessible to all companies.

How was the MLEIP different from other internships?

My other internship was for the business side of my degree program and therefore was very much in the private sector. Because of that, the types of skill-building and training sessions varied dramatically. But both MLEIP and my other internship really focused on developing both technical and professional skills as well as teambuilding and networking with other interns.

How did the internship affect what you’re doing now?

Two years as an MLEIP intern helped me begin narrowing down my interests in the vast environmental field. In my second year in the Office of Waste, I began to realize that I am particularly interested in how we could minimize wastes in our environment, beyond just remediation. While a long way from my work with petroleum storage tanks, that role helped me begin to find an area of focus that I love. I am now specializing in industrial ecology and work in areas such as the circular economy which has a lot of ties to issues of waste and how we can optimize processes to minimize wastes for our products.

What was your favorite part of the internship?

My favorite part of the internship was the people I met. My teams for both years were so welcoming and I always appreciated the culture on both teams. It was a little thing, but I found it special that we’d eat lunch together almost every day, which helped me feel like I was part of the family.

What do you think you learned most from the program?

I think the most important thing I came away with was an ability to understand the rules, regulations, and processes of the public sector. No matter where you operate in the environmental field, you will need some grasp of environmental policy, so as I move more into the private sector with my current work, I feel grateful that I already had some exposure to the regulatory and scientific side of the field, too.

Why do you think students should consider applying to the program?

One of my favorite things about the MLEIP program is the wide breadth of areas you can get involved in. Moving from Air to Waste was a big change and both areas helped me learn so much. Additionally, my mentors went out of their way to ensure I got to learn beyond my position and helped me set up meetings with people in different divisions, including even a chat with the commissioner. So, in addition to being a paid internship, I would recommend applying to the program because I think there is a lot of opportunity to either focus on a specific area or expand the breadth of knowledge and take a deep dive into an area you’re less familiar with.

What are you studying at Yale and how do you plan on using your degree?

At Yale, I am pursuing a master’s in environmental management and am specializing in business and the environment and industrial ecology. After graduating, I plan on going into sustainability consulting or corporate sustainability space to help businesses minimize their environmental footprints.

What inspires you?

Being surrounded by people passionate about the environment is always so inspiring. Whether that be at all the MLEIP learning sessions or surrounded by a cohort of environmentalists at Yale, it’s awesome seeing how many people are working on just about any possible climate/environmental issue you can think of to help protect our people and planet.