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June 2, 2003

Transfer student makes the most of what UCSC offers

Senior focuses on environmental conflict resolution

By Jennifer McNulty

Maybe it was growing up in rural Maryland and hearing relatives argue about the fate of the family farm that sparked Liv Nevin’s passion for environmental conflict resolution.

Liv Nevin was one of just 100 students worldwide attending a monthlong mediation course at The Hague last summer. Photo: Jennifer McNulty

Whatever the origin, Nevin found strong support for her academic interests as an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, where her senior project explored conflicts over the Carmel River watershed.

Pursuing her interest in conflict resolution took Nevin all the way to The Hague last summer, where she was one of only 100 students worldwide who attended a monthlong mediation course that emphasized the nonviolent path to social change.

The course was a perfect fit for Nevin, 27, an ordained Buddhist lama who spent several years immersed in Buddhist practice in China, Brazil, and Connecticut before coming to college.

Nevin, who arrived two years ago as a community college transfer student, will graduate in June with a degree in environmental studies.

"Liv has great personal depth and great intellectual depth. It’s a powerful combination," said Dennis Kelso, Professor of environmental studies, coholder of the Pepper-Giberson Chair, and Nevin’s adviser on her senior project.

For her part, Nevin speaks highly of the learning environment at UCSC and has nothing but praise for her professors, including Kelso and associate professor Daniel Press, who introduced her to ideas about the intersection of public opinion, government, and environmental goals.

"Denny was very enthusiastic and interested in my project," said Nevin, who, like many UCSC students, is on a first-name basis with her professors. "He helped me be independent and encouraged me to go off and do my own thing. Professors here really will make time for you. It’s remarkable."

Nevin’s two-quarter research project dominated her senior year. She examined the activities of the 12-member Carmel River Watershed Council, a volunteer advisory group established in 2000 to influence land-use decisions after the federal government drafted proposals to protect steelhead and California red-legged frogs. The threat of losing private-property rights spawned the creation of the council, which Nevin said includes "developers, environmentalists, and everything in between."

Watershed-management decisions are often controversial (and were the point of friction on her family’s farm) in part because they represent geographic boundaries and contain a finite resource, said Nevin, whose research included poring over the council’s archives and conducting numerous interviews. The process was challenging and eye-opening, she said, calling it a "small miracle" that she was able to pull it all together into a 50-page thesis. The experience heightened Nevin’s understanding of what it takes to be an environmental activist.

"I saw that it’s really hard work for people to be involved," said Nevin, who received a $5,000 scholarship from the Morris K. Udall Foundation, which supports undergraduate scholarship on the environment. "I was amazed by how burned out and discouraged members of the council are. But it was really good to see people trying to come together to work things out. I still think a watershed council can work."

Press applauded Nevin’s choice to undertake the thesis project, which gave her a "sobering look at the pitfalls and prospects of collaborative management."

"She needs to learn about those if she wants to go into environmental dispute resolution. She needs to understand what it can and can’t do," said Press, adding that Nevin is an "excellent" scholar who is "more interdisciplinary than her professors."

"That’s true of our best students, because we’ve come up through the disciplines, and they haven’t," he said, noting, however, that few students share Nevin’s dexterity in multiple areas.

Nevin, who received a Dean’s Award and honors on her thesis, was raised on an "off the grid" homestead by parents who emphasized self-sufficiency and multicultural awareness. The family cultivated an organic garden, used an outhouse rather than a flush toilet, and pumped springwater by hand into the kitchen. Their "back-to-the-land" lifestyle was so novel that the family was the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles. Nevin’s parents also encouraged travel, and the family spent an entire year bicycling from London to Greece and Egypt.

Nevin turned to college after several years spent studying and teaching Buddhism, including opening two Buddhist centers in Brazil and one in Connecticut. "For me, Buddhism was a vehicle for understanding social responsibility and trying to raise consciousness about environmental problems," said Nevin. "After wearing (Buddhist) robes for three years, it was a big decision for me not to do that anymore, but I was ready to be a student again."

Nevin wanted to learn about environmental issues and improve her writing, and she chose UCSC in part because the Environmental Studies Department offers three areas of specialization: policy, agroecology, and conservation biology.

To learn more about dispute resolution, Nevin applied to participate in the international course in The Hague. Sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for International Mediation and Conflict Resolution, the course offered participants intensive training in negotiation, mediation, and "practical means of bringing about nonviolent change." Nevin was awed by the expertise of instructors who had worked on conflicts from Rwanda to Ireland and the Middle East.

"We got to hear the perspectives of people working all over the world--from students, diplomats, lawyers, academics, and peace activists," said Nevin. "The diversity of views was particularly valuable, especially after September 11."

Returning to Santa Cruz, Nevin learned more about environmental dispute resolution during an internship with CONCUR, Inc., a Berkeley-based organization founded by UCSC alumni John K. Gamman and Scott T. McCreary.

Bolstered by the backing of faculty mentors, Nevin charted an educational path that integrated independent research, international study, and an off-campus internship.

This article is part of Profiles in Excellence, an ongoing series highlighting the outstanding educational opportunities and achievements of UCSC students and graduates. Other profiles are posted on the Profiles in Excellence web page.

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