By Maria Benevento
Phi Beta Kappa member Anna Kottkamp has been named valedictorian of Notre Dame’s 2015 graduating class. An environmental science major with a minor in international development studies, Kottkamp was a member of the Glynn Family Honors Program, the varsity rowing team, and the Voices of Faith gospel choir. She also spent time volunteering at several South Bend organizations, including the Catholic Worker House.
In 2013, she received an Experience the World Fellowship from the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, which allowed her to complete a summer internship in Peru where she designed an environmental education curriculum. In the summer of 2014, she received an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program grant to travel to Bolivia where she conducted a case study for an organization that works with small-scale farmers.
While her desire to serve others has remained constant, Kottkamp’s ideas of how she would like to do so have changed since the beginning of college, and they are still developing.
She says that she began college pre-med because she “wanted to help people in some way and that seemed the most logical way to live out a love of serving others.” While working at a clinic in her hometown the summer after her freshman year, Kottkamp discovered she loved working with people at community health fairs, but she says, “I didn’t really like the ‘being a doctor’ side that I was seeing, and I just knew I wasn’t called to do that.”
Because of her love of the outdoors and her interest in learning about natural systems and how humans interact with them, Kottkamp decided to change her major to environmental science and says it was one of the best decisions she ever made. She is especially interested in studying the effects of agriculture and learning about environmental justice, pointing out that the people who benefit from exploiting natural resources can often cause other people to suffer the negative consequences of their actions.
Throughout her time at Notre Dame, Kottkamp has enjoyed taking classes that help her understand the world from an interdisciplinary perspective. She especially enjoyed an eye-opening anthropology class called People, Environment, and Justice, and an international development class where she examined the “assumptions that people have towards poor people in developing nations” and learned to “rigorously look at different things that people say work, that they say about the poor,” and ask, “’What is the truth? What really is the situation?’ The situation is that it’s always more complicated than you think,” Kottkamp explained. “But it helped me learn how to approach issues from a variety of different perspectives.”
Kottkamp is considering pursuing a Ph.D. and is conducting stream ecology research at Notre Dame this summer, which is helping her understand what it would be like to be a part of “academia.” She plans to spend the next year volunteering with Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) Northwest, where she will live in community with several other volunteers in Hood River, Oregon, and work for the Columbia Gorge Ecology Institute, an organization which does ecological programming in many of the area’s schools. Kottkamp explained, “I’ll be working specifically with the SECRETS program, which is basically an ecology curriculum for 5th graders. So we do skits with them and take them on hikes and things like that.” She is excited to do service with a “solidarity, social justice focus.”
While Kottkamp is unsure about her long-term plans, she knows she wants to “mix outreach and hard, academically rigorous science,” possibly through work at a museum or a long-term ecological research center. She hopes to not only study science but to “be involved in bringing this cool, good, important science to people and translating that effectively to the people that it impacts,” she says, whether that involves “kids learning about the forest or adults learning how the management practices of their gardens are affecting people downstream.”
Maria Benevento is a senior at Creighton University majoring in Theology and American Studies. Creighton University is home to the Beta of Nebraska Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.