Advice to My Younger Self

Leslie Carol Roberts, ’83, is a professor at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
Read time: 3 minutes

Leslie Carol Roberts, ’83, is a professor and chair of the MFA writing program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Recently, she shared advice on how listening to her U-M professors inspired her to be an activist and helped shape her career as an environmental author. In her work, Roberts concentrates specifically on place, ecologies, and the implications of climate chaos. She is the author of “The Entire Earth and Sky: Views on Antarctica” (University of Nebraska Press, 2012) and the soon-to-be-published “Here Is Where I Walk: Episodes from a Life in the Forest” (University of Nevada Press, 2019). Her latest book traces her wanderings on foot through San Francisco’s Presidio National Park as well as in Tasmania, Australia; Antarctica; Italy; and Indiana and Michigan.

Find your passion. I learned about the role of activism in shaping policy and fomenting social change while I was at U-M. I studied political science and art history and had amazing professors who were doing research all over the world. They taught me how to think about complex problems more creatively. I wrote each of my books from the perspective that most Americans do not understand the perils of climate change. I have thrown my whole self at this topic during my career, which started in journalism, from covering Greenpeace as a reporter in Antarctica to my time spent as a Fulbright Scholar at Gateway International Antarctic Centre in New Zealand.

Know your skills. I don’t have the discipline of the field botanist. I don’t need to know the taxonomy of nature. Instead, by using the forms of the essayist—reportage, reflection, exposition, imaginative flights—I like to think I travel in creative nonfiction writing. My books are a collage, reflecting my curiosity for both Earth’s systems and the essential role of creativity and curation in civil society.

Think for yourself. I am forever grateful to my Shakespeare professor, who really gave it to me for blindly following the literary critic Walter Pater’s interpretation of “Richard III.” I still laugh at that young me who thought quoting other’s ideas was the same as generating ideas. That professor taught me to have the courage to create new knowledge.

Travel Around Michigan. I wish I had explored the state more. Ernest Hemingway was captivated by Michigan. There are all these lakes, big and small, around Ann Arbor and Detroit. Find classes with field trips, or visit with your friends. Places create relationships.

Engage with your professors. Now that I am a professor myself, I know how committed we are to office hours, to working with our students one to one. That is why we are here. We want to help you get traction in our fields through individualized readings and discoveries. We want to help you learn better. I used to be so terrified to meet with professors. “Get over it!” I would tell the young me.

Just do it. I also think about how we stand and sing the “Leaders and Best,” and it is really both a simple statement of fact and a throwing down of the gauntlet. Our times raise difficult questions, including how our species is apparently incapable of acting to stop our own extinction. In the end, I want to change the narrative because I want ecologies, as we know them, to survive. What U-M gave me is a healthy critical lens and the pragmatic good cheer to roll up my sleeves and get to work.

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