Environmental Leadership: A Q&A with Paul Gharzouzi

Environmental Leadership: A Q&A with Paul Gharzouzi

Paul Gharzouzi, iSEE’s Graduate Educational Research Intern, played a pivotal role in developing the institute’s new Environmental Leadership Program (ELP).

Originally from Lebanon, Gharzouzi attended the American University in Beirut to study civil engineering with a minor in applied energy. After receiving his bachelor’s degree, Gharzouzi chose to pursue his interest in sustainability and continue his education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, receiving a master’s degree in Civil Engineering with a focus on energy, water, and environmental sustainability.

In this Q&A with iSEE Communications Intern Grace Izzo, Gharzouzi discusses the mission behind the Environmental Leadership Program, his hopes for its future, and his own plans for a career in sustainability.


I understand you are currently a Ph.D. student here at Illinois. What program are you in, and what motivated you to further your education?

I am currently working toward a Ph.D.in civil engineering with Professor Paolo Gardoni, focusing on sustainable and resilient infrastructure systems. I was mainly motivated to continue my studies to further understand the science and concepts behind sustainability and sustainable solutions. In my Ph.D. program, I had the opportunity to explore how sustainability is linked to concepts such as resilience, risk, reliability, and natural and manmade hazards. I was very excited to dive deeper into this field and learn more about all the entities that make up sustainability.


As the Graduate Educational Research Intern for iSEE, what have been a few of your favorite research projects to work on and why? 

I’ve been fortunate to work on many interesting projects, but in terms of my favorite, I think it’s the Environmental Leadership Program. It’s a project that I’ve been involved in since I joined iSEE, and the project has been a great experience since I was a part of starting it from the ground up. I’m excited to see where it will go in the coming years.


You were a crucial part of creating the ELP. Why was this important for you and what do you hope for the future of the program?

Gharzouzi, at right, joins ELP students and iSEE staff during their trip to Springfield in March 2022. Credit: Mark Herman/iSEE Communications

Throughout my studies, I came to realize that sustainability is an interdisciplinary challenge. Finding the solution to such a challenge requires getting the perspective and input of multiple disciplines, which is why the Environmental Leadership Program is important. The program aims to prepare undergraduate students from all backgrounds and academic disciplines for sustainable leadership roles in both the private and public sectors. The current version of the Environmental Leadership Program focuses on environmental policy and advocacy at the local and state level. For future versions of the program, we hope to incorporate additional aspects of environmental leadership by providing exposure to corporate sustainability, sustainability efforts in the private sector, and environmental non-profits. We want to give a bigger picture of what environmental leadership really is.


Starting a program from the ground up is difficult and dedicated work. What advice would you give to someone interested in starting their own program? 

First off, developing the Environmental Leadership Program would not have been possible without the support of iSEE Associate Director for Education Luis Rodriguez, former Associate Director Gillen Wood, Academic Program Instructor Eric Green, and all of iSEE Management. Starting this program has definitely been a unique and very enriching experience. Besides the actual content development, I got to learn about the details and logistics involved in running such an endeavor. My advice is to ask for regular feedback and be willing to tweak and edit pieces of the program as needed. Since this was a new program, continuous feedback throughout the development process was essential to steer it in the right direction. It is also important to keep in mind that it’s a work in progress. So as the ELP or any new program continues to grow, there will always be new additions to incorporate and more to expand upon.


An integral part of the ELP is the “four days of intensive experiential learning.” Could you explain more about this and how it benefits students long term?

The four days of intensive experiential learning during spring break were the culmination of the current version of the program, with trips to the city councils of Urbana and Champaign, as well as the state Capitol in Springfield. During these trips, students got the chance to present the environmental policy they had been developing throughout the semester and make their voices heard. More importantly, students were able to interact and network with lawmakers at the local and state level, which gave them the opportunity to experience policy-building firsthand and explore potential career pathways. I was very pleased with the policies that our current cohort developed and how they advocated for their environmental issues of interest. In fact, after listening to our students’ presentations, a few lawmakers reached out to a couple of groups to ask for more details and support their bills!


Reflecting on your educational and personal experiences, was there a defining moment that led you to where you are now? Who or what inspires you toward sustainable action?

There really was no specific defining moment for me, as I’ve always been interested in sustainability and sustainable action. I will say that while working toward my bachelor’s degree, there were a few professors who inspired me to pursue graduate studies in the sustainability field. At UIUC, I met so many people both at iSEE and in the Champaign-Urbana community who are working toward sustainable action, which has been a great inspiration for me.


Why do you think preserving the environment is important? How did you get involved in this field in the first place?

Above: Gharzouzi, right, talks with students during a session of the Environmental Leadership Program. Top: Paul Gharzouzi. Credits: Julie Wurth/iSEE Communications

From taking environmentally focused courses in college, preserving the environment was a topic I encountered a lot. These courses made me realize I am interested in this field of study and want to be more involved. It’s more important now than it ever has been to find solutions to preserve the environment. With the rising global population, I think it’s essential that we plan future economic growth in a sustainable and equitable manner. This is a global issue with very particular local implications, which makes it so challenging, but interesting at the same time. I think preserving the environment and our resources is also tied to many other critical issues like food security and population displacement, which further highlights the need for urgent action on that front.


Tell me a little about yourself outside of Illinois. What’s something most people don’t know about you?

My family is from Lebanon, which is where I spent most of my childhood. It is also where I completed my undergraduate studies. My family is my biggest support system. They supported me in pursuing my education outside of my home country and helped me get where I am today. As for my hobbies, I enjoy sports, mainly soccer and basketball. I also enjoy watching movies and traveling. As for something most people don’t know about me, I’m known as the food critic amongst my friends. For example, whenever my friends and I go out to eat, my friends have me choose a place (my favorites in town are Sakanaya and Pizzeria Antica), and they ask me for recommendations on what to order. That is a trait I got from my grandfather. My grandfather, Adel, was a poet and an avid reader from Amsheet, a small town in Lebanon. I remember when I was a kid, my grandfather would always introduce me to new Lebanese food, and he would always ask for my opinion on the dishes.


As you look toward your future, after receiving your Ph.D., what are some goals you hope to accomplish in the next five to 10 years? 

Firstly, working at iSEE has been essential in shaping my Ph.D. experience. I have a greater understanding of sustainability, and I was able to work on sustainability from an educational standpoint. As for my future, I would like to continue working and contributing to this field through research, education, and potentially a new endeavor!

 — Article by iSEE Communications Intern Grace Izzo