Student Stories: Environmental major inspired to protect the environment

The BP oil spill that occurred in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico proved to be one of the most devastating environmental disasters in the history of the petroleum industry. Junior Environmental Resource Management major Kaitlyn Benson traveled to Costa Rica in high school around the time of the spill, and was motivated to make a difference.

"What I witnessed inspired me to pursue a career in governmental environmental protection and pollution control," said Benson, of Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, a student in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

Her passion helped her land an internship last summer with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in the Harrisburg office. She worked in the Clean Water Program, where her main task was to conduct inspections of industrial facilities that had expired stormwater-pollution permits.

"They hired me to get the ball rolling with the new Chesapeake Bay Initiative and make sure that stormwater is better managed in Pennsylvania," said Benson.

Benson worked independently and had to learn quickly about what goes into an inspection and what to do if she came across a violation. Although she did not run into violations often, she found them to be fascinating.

She remembered one in particular at a mulch facility site that sloped down into a retention pond.

"The owners didn't realize that when it rained, the rain would leak through the mulch and pull out organic matter that would run down into the pond and turn it a dark brown color," she said. "As we looked closer, we found that microorganisms were feeding on the organic matter, multiplying and soaking up all the dissolved oxygen when they died. Nothing could live in that water!"

These triumphant moments allowed Benson to solidify her desire to work for the government in the future, and she hopes to turn her experience into a career in which she helps make the rules.

"I always tell students to get an internship because it puts everything into perspective," said Benson. "I didn't realize just how valuable and amazing my internship was until I got back to Penn State, where in classes we would learn about things that I already had experienced in the real world."

Learn about the Environmental Resources Management major.

Last Updated December 16, 2014