From English Major to Environmental Steward: UMUC Alumnus Makes Clean Water His Mission

Berkeley County, West Virginia, is the fastest growing county in the state as new industry is attracted to the I-81 corridor and Northern Virginia’s exploding population spills into the Mountain State’s eastern panhandle.

As a result, an upsurge of houses, roads, parking lots, industrial parks and the like is creating new stormwater pollution problems in a state where water flows downhill quickly.

To solve this problem, Berkeley County hired Terry Goodwin, a University of Maryland University College (UMUC) graduate with an unusual background:  He had an English undergraduate major, yet he defied the odds by being accepted into the university’s master’s program in Environmental Management, which caters almost exclusively to applicants with science and technical backgrounds.

But Goodwin says combining his writing and communication skills with the technical education he received in the master’s program has been a winning combination as he becomes West Virginia’s first county-wide stormwater management director.

“My English degree,” he said, “helped to provide the necessary business writing and creative writing skills needed to create narratives for grant opportunities and to clearly define objectives and goals in official documents submitted to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.”

Goodwin, who grew up in Cecil County, Maryland, tried community college for a while but left to join the U.S. Air Force in 2005 at the age of 20.  He was lured back to higher education while stationed in Okinawa.  The UMUC campus on the base there appealed to him because he was from Maryland and he had a high opinion of the state’s university system.

“I was always good at writing, and I felt the next step for me was to earn an English degree and either become a writer or an educator,” he said.

But as he worked his way through his undergraduate courses in Okinawa and later at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, he discovered two things about himself.  First, he didn’t want to be a teacher. And second, he said he believed the only sure way he could make enough money as a writer to support a family would be to do technical writing.  And he found that terribly boring.

“I realized it wasn’t a passion of mine,” he said.

But during his time in Germany, he said he became interested in that nation’s environmental work. It piqued his interest and became his passion.  He just had to figure out how to get the skills to be job worthy.

That’s where UMUC came back into the picture.  Its online master’s program in Environmental Management caught his eye.  The only problem was that he did not seem to have the prerequisite science classes to gain entry. He only had a couple of biology courses.

Bob Ouellette, the program’s director, said Goodwin stood out among applicants because he did not have a technical background.

“The vast majority of our students come in with a degree in science that has to do with the environment: geology, biology, chemistry or hydrology,” he said. “Most of our students are currently working in the environment, usually in a narrow area.  They are taking the program to broaden their knowledge to open new career paths.”

But Ouellette wanted to expand who is going into environmental work, so he decided to admit Goodwin, noting that he had excelled in his undergraduate biology courses.

“I thought the program would be a challenge for Terry,“ he said. “But we have a class called environmental systems that tries to bring all of the students to the same level by teaching them a little bit about geology, biology, chemistry and hydrology so they learn the language of each science as well as the basic knowledge.”

By the time Goodwin finished the degree, he had left the Air Force as a staff sergeant but had stayed as a civilian employee at Ramstein.  He had a wife and child and was looking to return to Maryland to raise his family.

“The UMUC degree was invaluable,” he said. “All of the professors were professionals in the field. They all had their own real-world experience to provide us. Some of the coursework I had in watersheds was highly beneficial for the job I got.  Land management was useful.

“On top of that, one of the professors I worked with, John Munro, provided Geographic Information Systems training that was hugely beneficial in getting this job. Part of the job is mapping and locating all of the different stormwater systems in the county.  That’s where the GIS coursework was

New Proctor & Gamble plant in Berkley County

While municipalities have been building stormwater pollution control systems for years, what makes Goodwin’s position different is that it encompasses an entire county of more than 300 square miles, most of which drains into the Potomac River. With its rapid economic development, what had been a rural county is quickly urbanizing.  One company alone, Procter & Gamble, invested more than $500 million in constructing a new plant.

And all of the newly created streets, parking lots, rooftops and other impervious surfaces accompanying this “urbanization” gather oils, chemicals and fertilizers that drain into the hilly terrain.  Goodwin said his job is not just finding ways to contain the runoff so that it does not flood the property of others.  He also must find ways to filter that water so that it can be cleaned naturally before it ends up in creeks heading to the Potomac.

That’s where his UMUC training was essential in teaching him how to develop grassy swales, bioretention areas, rain gardens—and even to provide residences with rain barrels for collecting runoff from roofs that can be used later to water gardens. All these methods filter out impurities so that the streams in the developing eastern part of the county can approach the water quality of streams in the rural western part.

Goodwin must make sure he has a plan that outlines clearly what developers must do to comply with regulations. And that’s where his training in English came back in.

“One clear achievement I can attribute to my English degree is the accelerated approval of the Storm Water Management Plan,” he said. “The review process before I entered this job had taken over two years without approval.  I entered the job, began writing the plan, submitted and received state approval within three months.”

And, he said, the degree has helped him communicate with developers and with homeowners so they understand why complying with regulations helps the environment, which benefits the community.

For Goodwin, the work helps him fulfill a lifetime interest in the Potomac River. All the rain that falls on Berkeley County and on Washington County in Maryland—his home—directly drains into the Potomac.

“I feel like I am doing a lot of good in the local community as well as for the entire region,” he said. “I can clean up that portion of the water under my control that will flow all the way to the Chesapeake Bay.”