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IVC News > June 08, 2020

When Life Hands You Lemon Rinds, Make Soil: IVC’s ‘Compost Queen’ Stephanie Del Rosario

Stephanie.pngMost people transfer from community college to university, not vice versa. But after earning a B.A. in Classical Languages just one year before the 2008 recession, Stephanie Del Rosario saw fewer opportunities opening up for Latin teachers like her, even the ones with master’s degrees.

That’s when the ancient maxim, Audentes fortuna iuvat, or, “Fortune favors the bold,” jumped to mind, and Del Rosario prepared to take a leap of faith.

“I was looking for something environmentally related, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to restart,” recalls Del Rosario, who wanted to put her love of nature to work.

When a friend tipped her off to Irvine Valley College, the daring student ditched the dead languages and became evergreen with a Certificate of Proficiency in Recycling and Zero Waste, now called Sustainability and Resource Management.

In just two semesters, she was on the fast track to becoming a sustainability specialist, with a median salary of $75,790 in a field expanding far faster than average. Del Rosario was immersed in the field at IVC, where she appreciated the down-to-earth classes focused on making a positive impact, and quickly found her way to a seriously sustainable career.

“It was very applicable and real-world based,” shares the returning student, who was especially riveted by the interdisciplinary nature of the curriculum. “People think that sustainability is just about improving the environment, but it’s so much more than that… It’s also about people power … improving social equity, improving the economy, all of that together.”

For the green grad, what made the biggest difference was the devoted teachers. In particular, she says that founding instructor Antonia Castro-Graham was pure “dynamite” in the classroom and continuously inspired her. “She’s just one of those professors who is a total doer,” Del Rosario says about her instructor, who bears nearly 20 years of experience implementing programs throughout Southern California.

“I have watched her career blossom,” says the proud professor.

Castro-Graham was instrumental in connecting Del Rosario with not one, but two internships in the industry. Says the instructor: “I have a unique perspective and a vast network who are always eager to take my students into their workplaces.” 

The first opportunity was as a Zero Waste Intern at Orange County Great Park, where for six months, Del Rosario launched an innovative compost program at the farmer’s market. She would cruise around with a 65-gallon can collecting wilted produce and food truck leftovers, then process the organic matter through a high-tech dehydrator. The next day, she would return with “beautiful compost,” hauled to the park’s Food + Farm Lab to reduce waste while boosting healthy soils.

“It has to be one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had,” says the compost queen. “I just loved it.”

Castro-Graham also connected Del Rosario to the City of Fullerton, where she worked as an Administrative Intern researching and coordinating sustainability programs for nine months. While minimizing waste and conforming to resource regulations, she got crucial exposure to the ins and outs of local government work.

With plenty of “dirt under her fingernails,” she finally landed her first full-time sustainability job with CR&R, one of the largest waste and recycling companies in Orange County.

“Antonia wrote a really nice letter of recommendation that definitely helped me get the job at CR&R,” shares the grateful grad.

The connections established at IVC gave her confidence. Starting as a Sustainability Coordinator, Del Rosario moved up to Sustainability Specialist within a year and a half. One of the highlights was working with the City of Lake Forest, where on top of helping to create recycling programs, she also supported a new food waste program for local restaurants and grocery stores to turn leftover grub into rich compost.

“The food waste is technically recycled,” explains the green guru. “It doesn’t sit in the landfill where it won’t decompose, and where it lets off a lot of methane and other gases that are really destructive to air quality, water and soil.”

While working at CR&R, Del Rosario also earned her Master of Public Administration degree. Shortly afterward, she landed her dream job in her current position as a Sustainability Analyst with Cal State Fullerton, where she says, “I couldn’t be happier.”

This July marks her first work anniversary with the university, and in that short amount of time, Del Rosario has initiated significant changes with her carpe diem drive. One of her first acts was to secure a grant from California Clean Air Day to launch Fullerton’s inaugural “Titan Clean Air Day” event. The college garnered more than 200 pledges from students, faculty and staff, who committed to planting a garden, biking to work more often or changing their car air filters to reduce pollutants.

Her crowning achievement, though, occurred in October, when Del Rosario landed the highly competitive Club Car Sustainability Grant.

“I beat out about 70 or so schools from across the United States,” beams the grant writer with a green thumb. As a result, Club Car will supply Cal State Fullerton with a custom-built, zero-emissions vehicle to haul food scraps from the school cafeteria to the 26-acre arboretum, where an entire section is dedicated to making sweet, sweet compost.

The school’s “closed-loop” waste reduction system is set to salvage over 2,000 pounds of food waste every week, and now, it will all happen sans greenhouse gases, thanks to the new grant. According to the Sustainability Analyst, “Everything stays local, which equals a much lower carbon footprint.”

From hosting the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on Zoom this past April to saving several tons of plastic waste by promoting the school’s water bottle filling program, Del Rosario is helping to empower students to make their school greener.

“It’s a big ship that we’re trying to steer,” says Del Rosario about Cal State Fullerton. With more than 40,000 students — the largest student body of the 23-campus CSU system — in addition to over 4,000 faculty and staff and 15,000 campus jobs, the school might be more of an eco ark. And the idea of sailing into an environmentally friendly future is what fuels Del Rosario, described by coworkers as the “Energizer Bunny” of sustainability.

“I build on the energy, going back to the Irvine Valley College program and Antonia and a lot of those amazing professors,” she explains. “I really saw what they did, and I’ve just aspired to make my local community a better place.”

Looking to the future, Del Rosario wants to become more involved in technical and policy writing at the university, in addition to winning more grants. And who knows — a lot of policy creation involves collaborating with different partners, so she might even rub elbows again with the City of Fullerton, where her favorite professor, Castro-Graham, now works.

“The program at Irvine Valley College allowed me to gain skills and knowledge that were directly relevant to all the internships and jobs I’ve had since,” she reflects on her full-circle journey.

For Del Rosario, IVC’s focus on connection and support brings to mind a particularly elegant Latin phrase: Cor ad cor loquitur, which translates to “Heart talks to heart.”

“We had such dynamic advisors and professors, who were so passionate about what they did,” says Del Rosario. “It was just infectious.”

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