Akshay Deverakonda: Growing Environmental Sustainability

by Jessica Edington

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This biology and environmental science and policy major has had his feet firmly planted in work for environmental sustainability and justice since he came to W&M. His leadership has grown along with his involvement, as he involves others in service and research about the environment, working little by little for a healthier planet and people who are more connected to nature.

Office of Community Engagement: How are you involved in community engagement at William & Mary?

Akshay Deverakonda: So through [the] Sharpe [Scholars’ Program], I heard about Branch Out, William & Mary’s Alternative Breaks organization. I went on a national trip to Lynchburg during my Spring Break freshman year, and afterward, I really liked the experience and that inspired me to keep being involved in Branch Out, and since then I’ve been a regional site leader.

Aside from that I’m also in I-Faith, which is an inter-faith club at William and Mary. We’re trying to foster an inter-faith culture and build connections between people of different religious backgrounds, or lack thereof, on campus.

OCE: How has this work contributed to community needs?
AD: I think that, with my work with Branch Out, I like to focus on environmental alternative break opportunities, to allow people to contribute in an hands-on way to the environment and the community at the same time. I think it definitely fulfills a community need, because it’s one thing to hear a piece of information in class– like it’s one thing to hear in a class about how littering is bad– but it’s quite another thing entirely to actually be out there in the field picking up trash for a day. It helps you definitely learn in a way that classroom instruction can sort of do. But I think it compliments instruction in the class. I think the action and education parts of being an active citizen definitely go together because of that.

And with I-Faith, I would say we fulfill a community need, because prior it its establishment– it’s a relatively new group, I think it was only founded in 2010 or 2009– but prior to its establishment, there was no sustained student involvement to bring people of different backgrounds and faiths and views together on campus. And we’ve seen a big change in that respect in the past couple years. We’ve organized our own service trips that are actually based off of Branch Out’s model. And we’ve had people of different backgrounds participate, and some great conversations and great service resulting from that. We’ve also been organizing a campus-wide conference just to bring in outside experts. That’s really our main outreach at the end of the year. But it definitely opens a conversations space for people in the community.

OCE: What does active citizenship mean for you?
AD: For me, I think, it’s helped me be a bit more mindful in my conduct every day. Certainly, after being involved with some issues on specific trips, I like to think that I’ve hopefully benefited from that by treating the issue more respectfully the next time I come across it. For example, Grace [Fernandez] led a trip to the Special Olympics in Norfolk our freshman year. Since then, I’ve definitely been careful to say “people with disabilities” instead of “disabled people,” and definitely have had to take a stand several times and call people out when they use “retarded” in the wrong sense of the word.
But also, with other trips, for example after the Lynchburg Grows trip– that was the national trip I mentioned earlier– I’ve been more mindful to look for organic options whenever I got to the supermarket. I just try to eat more green and more local when possible. So it’s like these one time events have helped me to be more active in hopefully every waking second. I like to think that I’m more mindful and I treat these issues more respectfully when I can.

OCE: How has your experience working in the community affected your educational career at William & Mary?
AD: It turned everything upside down for me, but in a good way. You know, when I came to William & Mary, I wanted to major in neuroscience and then go to law school. The reason I signed up for Dr. Taylor’s class in Sharpe was because, from my point of view, that was the only science related Sharpe seminar. But that ended up changing everything. Especially the work I did at South of the Ferry, a farm in Surry, through Sharpe, in conjunction with going to the organic farm in Lynchburg later freshman year, helped me realize that “Hey, this environmental science thing is pretty fun!” I was still a bit iffy about switching majors after freshman year, but those two experiences lead me to do the William & Mary in DC program, where I worked for the EPA during the semester. That was another amazing experience that definitely helped me. I think it really confirmed for me that I wanted to do this.

OCE: How do you plan to use what you’ve learned as an engaged citizen beyond William & Mary?
AD: In the long term, I really like the local and national active citizenship opportunities that I’ve been very fortunate to get here at William & Mary, and I’m hoping that I can pursue those through Peace Corps after graduation, because I want to experience it on an international level as well. Beyond that, graduate school and some kind of environmental science or conservation field, I’m not exactly sure what yet. But after that I definitely hope to go into government, because I definitely like the idea of public service. And I guess it ties back into the idea of active citizenship. And I definitely want to use my scientific background to give back to the community in that way.

OCE: What is the most memorable or striking moment you experienced during your engagement work?
AD: Probably during the reflection session that I had on my most recent regional trip last fall semester. We were at Environmental Studies on the Piedmont, which is an environmental advocacy/outreach organization in Warrenton. So, long story short, we were helping them remove invasives and other species management work during the weekend. But the reflection was particularly striking because our community partner, who was with us during that reflection, he really did a good job. He helped us realize the bigger picture part of our work. I think on one hand, it is definitely easy to think that “Okay, well, we pulled weeds in only a small part of a several acre property for a weekend. Does that really make a big difference?” But Doctor Wood, our community partner, he definitely put it in perspective for us, and he said that it was this type of engagement that really helped us build or rebuild our connection to our natural surroundings that we’ve lost over the years. He encouraged us to continue to be involved in this kind of service work, with conservation and the outdoors matters and so on. I think that’s striking for me just because it definitely helps me remember that what I do matters. Even if, admittedly, it only helps for a little bit, that still makes a little difference. And going back to what I said earlier, it definitely helps me be an active citizen every moment when I can.

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About Melody Porter

Hello blogosphere! I am a long-time fan of human connection. I used to say that my major in college (above my actual political science & religion double major) was in friendships. Conversations over long meals or late nights on dorm hallway floors have been transformative in my life, and it only makes sense to me to dip my toe into new ways of opening up conversation here. I have worked at William and Mary since August 2008, and am Associate Director in the Office of Community Engagement. I spend my time fostering student leadership through alternative breaks. Doing so lets me fulfill what I understand my calling to be about: working for social justice in the world, and equipping others to do so with skill, sensitivity and great love. I earned my Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Religion from Emory University, and then served as a long-term volunteer for three years, beginning a job development program in Philadelphia and working with preschool children in Johannesburg, South Africa. I earned a Master of Divinity from the Candler School of Theology in 2001, with a focus in religious education. I managed a nonprofit family literacy program with immigrant and refugee families, and then served as Associate Minister at First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia, working in areas of social justice and community development, and directing an after school program that served more than 100 high school students. Then, I returned to Emory to serve for three years as director of Volunteer Emory, a student-led department for community service. I believe in the power of mutual connection and service to transform lives and create social change. I also love cheese fries.