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Traveling the world has inspired Melanie Stansbury to learn hands-on skills so she can help communities become self-sustaining.

Melanie Stansbury has traveled the world, digging deep into the corners of human culture and development. The more she sees, the more she wants to learn. And, the more she learns, the more she realizes: “If you want to change the world, you have to have skills.” At the Technical Vocational Institute in Albuquerque, N.M., she’s taking classes in environmental health and safety.

She previously earned a bachelor’s degree in ecology at St. Mary’s College of California, in Morago, and also attended the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

“I received a scholarship to attend St. Mary’s, and I went out there for two years and majored in art and philosophy,” she says. “Then I changed my major to biology. I burned out quickly, because I was also working as a full-time paralegal. So, I quit school and spent a year traveling all over Europe and the Middle East and Africa. Then I enrolled as a transfer student at the University of California, Berkeley, and I was there for a term.”

U.C. Berkeley had an exchange program with St. Mary’s that enabled Stansbury to go to the University of Cape Town for a semester. She studied international politics, ecology, environmental science and economics while working full time for a nonprofit organization doing development work in a local township. After that, she traveled the east coast of Africa.

Stansbury funded her globe-trotting by selling her own paintings. Creating the artwork allowed her to really see and experience local culture, and the experience made a lasting impression.

“Traveling a lot in the Third World, I’ve seen a lot of development projects and a lot of relief workers trying to do good in the world,” she says. “I’ve seen a lot of failures, and I’ve seen a lot of successes. It’s definitely influenced me and clarified my goals a lot.

“I have an idea of what kind of things are useful to communities. I think there are a lot of people in the developed world who want to do things for the rest of the world; but, they don’t have a clear idea of what people really want nor the desire or ability to listen ... to sit down with community leaders and ask what they want.”

Skills can effect change

Seeing and understanding a problem is one thing, having the skills to effect change is another.

“I really love learning, and I found that when I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I had accumulated a lot of knowledge about history and philosophy and the ‘art’ of science, but I didn’t have many skills,” Stansbury says.

Stansbury's acrylic on paper painting, "El Gato Portugesa," is indicative of the type of work she sold to support herself as she traveled the world.

“So, when I moved back to Albuquerque near my family, I decided to go to TVI to get some skills training. I started taking classes in the landscaping and the environmental health and safety program, because I was interested in learning more technical applications in the field.”

At TVI, Stansbury and some other students decided to improve a derelict greenhouse on the school property. They sought the administration’s support and were, in turn, encouraged to get involved in SkillsUSA. Just two weeks before the 2003 state competitions, the students became members.

“Our advisor, Alain Archuleta, gave us the opportunity to compete,” she says. “I competed in Prepared Speech, and I got second place in the state. It was really neat. There were about 15 of us, all new students who participated, and the really neat thing was that almost every one of us got a medal.”

Because Stansbury worked on a website for the TVI SkillsUSA chapter, Archuleta chose the student as a state delegate and sent her to the SkillsUSA national conference in June. While other members enjoyed a midweek dance, Stansbury was spotted poring over a copy of New Mexico’s gray water legislation. Gray water systems allow home owners to reuse wash water, which can be invaluable in drier climates like New Mexico’s.

It’s no surprise that she’s interested in developing such systems. Since age 12, Stansbury has worked in irrigation, water systems and tree planting for her family’s landscaping business. Right now, she’s the company foreman. She works in the fields, does irrigation installations and can operate a Bobcat and a backhoe if needed.

“Having grown up in New Mexico, which is still extremely rural and ranked among the poorest of the United States, I know there’s a lot of need for sustainable development,” she explains. “My family owns a landscaping company, and that’s what I do for a living.

“They just legalized gray water systems in New Mexico last March. We’ve been trying to develop a system that makes sense and is saleable to clients. We haven’t really succeeded in the gray water arena yet, but we’re working on it.”

Driven to learn and change lives

When Stansbury looks at a problem, she sees solutions. Implementing solutions requires constant learning — something that’s in her blood.

She’s applying to graduate schools right now, and her career goal is to work in the international development field. “My main interest is in sustainable development ... like community grass-roots sustainability,” she adds.

Her mother is an environmental educator whose influence has taught Stansbury to look beyond the obvious needs of suffering communities to pinpoint how the problems began.

“I’m interested in helping communities that have economic and ecological problems ... problems in sustaining themselves,” she says. “I want to help them develop projects that can make their communities prosper and be self-sustaining.

“I think because both of my parents were social activists and worked a lot for social justice, that since the time I was a small child I’ve had a genuine desire to give something back to the world, to make other people’s lives more comfortable and happy and joyful and beautiful.

“I think I’m driven to learn as much as I can — and understand as much as I can — to do useful things in the world and help transform lives.”

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SkillsUSA Champions | Spring 2004 | Volume 38, No. 3
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