From burnout to fulfillment: NAU grad overcomes obstacles to emerge as student leader in sustainability 

Sophia Swainson in graduation robes in the forest

As Sophia Swainson sat in her college dorm room, feeling burnt out and unfulfilled, she never imagined that a text message would change the course of her life. Swainson, who graduates this month, has overcome obstacles to make a significant impact on her campus community through her work in NAU’s Office of Sustainability. Swainson was a key contributor in getting NAU’s revamped recycling system off the ground, and her work with the Green Fund similarly fueled initiatives. Swainson’s passion for writing led her to major in journalism and minor in communication studies. However, during her sophomore year, she discovered her love for sustainability, prompting her to take on a second minor in environmental communication. Still, it wasn’t until she was sent a job posting at the Office of Sustainability in a group chat while working at a local fine-dining restaurant that her passion aligned with action. 

“I felt like the work I was doing was making no difference, and despite making more money than I ever would as a student employee, it just wasn’t worth it. So, when I got that text notification, it really felt like divine intervention,” Swainson said. “I wasn’t even aware positions like that existed for students, so as I read the job description, I was just floored by how perfectly it felt like it suited me.” 

In addition to promoting Green NAU’s mission during a transformative time for the organization, Swainson took on a daunting recycling project that had been stagnant for years. Despite initial reservations as an unrelated major, Swainson enjoyed assembling the assessment, likening it to a puzzle. The highlight of the experience was learning that the administration approved the proposal and decided to implement it throughout campus.  

Avi Henn, sustainability manager for the Office of Sustainability, worked closely with Swainson during her time in the office and noted her dedication and impressive work.  

Sophia Swainson in a kayak on Lake mary“Sophia played a critical role and contributed greatly to the recycling revamp and other sustainability initiatives. As a Green Fund member, Sophia demonstrated a strong passion for sustainability and consistently showed a high level of dedication and professionalism in her work,” Henn said. “She was always willing to go the extra mile and push through professional, academic, and personal challenges.” 

Swainson’s work at the Office of Sustainability, particularly with the recycling revamp project, has been her most fulfilling work, which she feels most proud of accomplishing during her time at NAU. She was recently honored with an award in the undergraduate student leader category at the Sustainability Leadership Awards.  

“The award really drove home to me that not only do I feel like the work I’ve done for NAU has been meaningful, but my community thinks so too,” Swainson said. “That’s a wonderful feeling, and I am so proud of myself for working as hard as I have to create that impact.” 

Invisible obstacles 

Born in Madrid, Swainson is a dual citizen of Spain and the United States and has lived in various cities throughout her life. Her journey to NAU was anything but typical and was not without its challenges. She was disqualified by a Military Entrance Processing station (MEPs) for medical history, which led her to apply to NAU just a month before the Fall 2019 semester started. Instead of joining the Army, Swainson decided to apply to NAU because she’d visited northern Arizona a couple of times and felt drawn to the forest and the mountains. 

Swainson recalls a trying first semester as she had taken a gap year after graduating high school, and returning to more advanced academics was more of a struggle than she anticipated. She was failing all her first-semester classes and considered dropping out of college. She felt overwhelmed and could not concentrate but was determined to overcome these obstacles. She withdrew from all her classes and enrolled in the subsequent semester.  

Determined to succeed the second time around, Swainson spent the winter break brainstorming new strategies for managing her time and organizing her responsibilities. At about this time, she was also diagnosed with fibromyalgia, which helped her better understand the obstacles she had been facing and mitigate her challenges. When the spring semester began, Swainson applied her newfound knowledge and her grades reflected it.  

“Now that I’m graduating summa cum laude with a 4.0, it feels really good to be able to look back on my college experience as evidence that not only do I knowSophia Swainson wearing sunglasses and hiking how to succeed, but I also know how to fail and come back stronger, which almost feels more valuable,” she said. 

Swainson is a firm believer in the importance of education. Receiving an education broadened her perspective and empowered her with the skills and knowledge she needs to pursue her aspirations. Swainson worked to pay her expenses on her own for almost the entirety of her college experience and recalls free time being scarce. At one point, she was working three jobs on top of her full course load.  

“That made my college experience feel like a constant struggle, but it also made it a super learning-dense experience,” Swainson said. “That will definitely have a long-lasting impact because it taught me how to hustle to make things work and that will always be useful.” 

Triumph in the pines 

A glimmer of free time in Flagstaff for Swainson meant a chance to paddleboard on Lake Mary or hike among the Ponderosa pines, indulging in their butterscotch scent, which has never lost its charm over the years. As a nature enthusiast, she can’t help but pause to sniff at the trees; though her loved ones stopped waiting for her to catch up, she still stops to take the briefest of sniffs. She recently visited lower Lake Mary as a special pre-graduation treat. When she’s not paddleboarding or sniffing trees, Swainson is pursuing one of her many hobbies, which include camping, backpacking, rock climbing, gardening, sewing and taking her two cats, Seymour and Sorsha, on outdoor adventures. Although Swainson’s journey was not without its bumps, her positivity, resolve and desire to make a difference made it possible for her to leave her mark. 

“She consistently demonstrated a positive attitude and a willingness to learn, which made her a pleasure to work with,” Henn said. “I will miss her very much, but I am so excited to see all the great things she will do!” 

Swainson is wasting no time. She and her partner are moving to Seattle, where Swainson has several interviews lined up for nonprofit communications positions in the area. Her dream career is to work in public relations or communications for an environmental or social justice-related non-profit, and the education she received at NAU and the experience from the Office of Sustainability have prepared her for career paths in communication and sustainability. Swainson’s dedication to sustainability and her community at NAU has undoubtedly made a positive impact with a project completed and implemented during her tenure. With her passion for sustainability, communications knowledge and experience gained at NAU’s Office of Sustainability, Swainson is now ready to take on the next challenge and make a difference in the world through her work with nonprofit organizations.  

“NAU has been a wonderful place to grow into the next chapter of my life,” Swainson said. “I can’t imagine being the person I am today without my NAU journey and the NAU spirit I’m taking with me on my next journey.”

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Cynthia Gerber | NAU Communications
(928) 523-7341 |

NAU Communications