"The opportunities are really infinite."
When one of Derek Young's professors asked him to help study bird populations in the Arctic, there was no way he could turn down the offer. Even though the 16-hour work days working alongside biology professor Nina Karnovsky were taxing and the constant rain of droppings from the auk hatchlings he was studying was less than pleasant, the Arctic trip was one of the most memorable experiences of Young's life-and at Pomona College, he's had many to choose from.
"It was really great to know that all this work was going towards a good cause, to help us better understand climate change and the effects it's having," says Derek. "From our study site, we could see a glacier and big chunks of ice were constantly falling into the ocean, and it just served as a reminder for why we're doing this work."
The summer before that, after his sophomore year, Derek worked on community development projects across Peru with Pomona students and professors. He spent six weeks in the tiny village of Chijnaya, volunteering on health and education projects for the impoverished farming community. He followed that up working alongside Associate Professor of Politics Heather Williams and a team of government organizations to improve water quality around Lake Titicaca. "I really gained a deep appreciation of the lifestyle of these people who have so little in terms of material goods, yet are the happiest people I've ever met," Derek says. "It really challenged my notions of what it means to live well."
Coupled with his coursework back in Claremont, Derek's summer adventures ignited a passion for environmental studies that led him to switch his major to environmental analysis as a junior. Having already completed two years of coursework in neuroscience, Derek wasn't sure at first if the change was the right thing to do, so he asked his professors for advice. "Everyone was so encouraging that I decided to go through with the switch, and I haven't had any regrets."
Derek has really come to value the relationships he's built with Pomona faculty. He credits his professors with engaging him in the material, even in the most challenging subject areas. "It would have been pretty easy to slip away into apathy and done poorly," Derek says of an organic chemistry class. "But the instructor was one of the most approachable, encouraging professors I've ever had."
Before coming to Pomona, Derek was searching for a vibrant academic community with the opportunity to really engage with the curriculum. Sure, it's nice to trade the cold of his native Illinois for the California sun eight months out of the year, he says, but it's the academic atmosphere that really attracted him to Pomona.
Outside of the classroom, Derek has been an active member of On the Loose, an outdoors club that has been leading Claremont College students on camping and hiking trips around California for decades. Since joining the group as a freshman, he's organized snorkeling trips to San Diego, treks through Death Valley, and an environmental tour of the Coachella Valley led by Pomona professors. Through OTL, Young built lasting bonds with his peers that have really enriched his Pomona experience.
With his time at Pomona slowly coming to a close, Young is already looking for ways to apply his experiences beyond the College gates. He has received a year-long Fulbright research grant to study land-use change and forest restoration back in Peru, and hopes to earn a Ph.D. in ecology when he returns. Derek also plans to continue working with nonprofits to help improve the quality of life for marginalized people around the globe through scientific research.
"Pomona is really an inspiring place," he says. "It gives you everything you need--encouraging professors, engaging classmates, exciting activities--but it puts you at the controls. The opportunities are really infinite."