Spencer Jastrow a natural selection for Phi Beta Kappa

An appreciation for nature led this senior into environmental studies and political science.

September 1st 2016 | Katie Vaughn
Awards, Social Sciences, Students
Back to News


This spring, Spencer Jastrow became one of 152 UW-Madison students inducted into the Alpha Chapter of Wisconsin Phi Beta Kappa. The nation’s oldest academic honor society, Phi Beta Kappa members embody excellence in depth and breadth of study in the liberal arts. The Alpha Chapter inducts under five percent of the senior class from the College of Letters & Science.

Jastrow, an environmental studies and political science major from Waukesha, Wisconsin, says family camping excursions and road trips throughout his childhood helped spark an interest in environmental issues, which he plans to parlay into a career.

What brought you to UW-Madison?

I knew early on that I wanted to study fields related to the environment and politics, and Madison offered the best of both worlds. Not only is the school in the state’s capital, but the university’s size and prominence in both disciplines offers opportunities for academic and extracurricular engagement.

What have been highlights of your Wisconsin experience?

Working with Professor Cathy Middlecamp and the Office of Sustainability the summer after my freshman year gave me the opportunity to apply my classroom studies of life cycle analyses and carbon cycles to improving the solid waste programs on campus. With the aid of many passionate fellow students and staff members, I was able to be part of the drive to expand the university’s composting infrastructure, develop educational and outreach events and measure recycling rates in campus buildings. Seeing the real-world impacts of my efforts outside the classroom and knowing I helped leave campus and the environment a better place is a highlight of my time at UW.

What led you to travel to Costa Rica?

As an avid outdoorsman, I wanted a program that heavily incorporated field work into the curriculum. The School for Field Studies’ program [a UW-approved affiliate study abroad program] in Costa Rica involved living on a Rainforest Alliance Certified mango and orange farm (chores included), extensive travel throughout the country and even to Nicaragua and a three-week directed research project in the field. The program offered not only coursework focusing on ecology, resource management and sustainable development, but the chance to take part in the earth-conscience lifestyle of the center. Besides the coursework (which easily transferred into useful UW courses), the program gave me the opportunity to live in another culture, practice my Spanish and learn about the political and ecological successes and challenges the Costa Rican people have faced in their ambitious goal of carbon neutrality.

What does it mean to you to be inducted into Phi Beta Kappa?

Induction into PBK means being part of a community that shares a love of learning and appreciation for the cross-disciplinary complexities found in the inquiries we face as students and in the challenges we face as a society. A professor of mine joked that if there is one thing a college education should teach someone, it’s that the answer to any question should be, “it’s complicated.” A fascination for the unknown and a curiosity in the way the world works means that the liberal arts are as much a lifestyle as an academic study. In this regard, PBK is a welcoming and just the beginning in a search for meaning, common ground and pathways forward in a pluralistic society and changing global environment.