We met with Conrado Asenjo (Hanszen ‘18) to discuss environmental leadership, science fair projects, travel, his advice for fellow Rice students, and much more. Conrado is the head of the Rice Eco-Rep program, through which every residential college has a student worker who focuses on environmental-related tasks, ranging from energy and water conservation to recycling to environmental education
How did you become interested in environmental issues?
CA: Ever since middle school, I had done research on environmental science topics, namely water pollution and conservation. When I came to Rice, I tried to find a place that I could make a difference in the university’s environmental impact, and when Nick Fleder introduced me to the EcoRep program, I decided I would apply to join.
Was there a particular environmental issue or set of issues in Puerto Rico that you have focused on or that captured your attention?
CA: Although I focused on water pollution during my previous years, I am very passionate about our energy sourcing. We currently derive around 80% of our power from Venezuelan oil, which is known as being very high in pollutants — even when compared to other sources of oil. Over the past decade, environmentally friendly energy projects have been stifled — a wind farm, a geothermal project, and solar farm — due to political issues. It makes me very sad to see an island with such potential for green energy not advance towards a more carbon-neutral stance mainly because of political bickering. I hope that in the next few years, the new administration will pass new projects to improve our impact, but I am also aware this is wishful thinking.
As a high school student, you won several awards at international science fairs for environmental-themed research projects. What were those projects about, and what did you learn?
CA: My projects focused on detecting pollution in lakes and beaches using different methods. The most successful, and the one I was awarded for, was using electrical conductivity as a marker of total dissolved solids, which is an indicator of general pollution. It was a great experience, since I got to work with the local EPA office, the Department of Natural Resources, and EQ-Labs, an environmental analysis laboratory.
Upon arrival at Rice, you became very involved in the political life of your residential college, and then connected that with environmental leadership by becoming Hanszen’s Eco-Rep. What were some of the projects that you undertook as your college’s Eco-Rep?
CA: As my college’s Eco-Rep I worked in making our commons more environmentally friendly by adding LEDs to our lighting system. When informed of the new deck by our senior operations manager, I also helped make it more accessible and worked with Housing & Dining in adding a power strip in order to make it more appealing to students. Another project I did was have water bottle fillers installed in each building in the college, therefore making disposable water bottles obsolete, and reducing the number of water bottles consumed.
You’re now the head of the Eco-Rep program. What insights or lessons can you share about transitioning from essentially being an eco-entrepreneur at your college to becoming an environmental manager of a group of eleven?
CA: It wasn’t easy. I owe much of my success to my co-head Eco-Rep for last year Lindsy Pang (Martel ‘16). She had more experience and was more aware of what needed to be done. I am very much thankful to have worked with her, given that she taught me most of what I know today. Working with the other eleven Eco-Reps has been a very gratifying experience. I have learned what each of them is passionate about and have tried to help them achieve their goals at each of their colleges and in the campus as a whole. If I had to give any advice to the incoming head Eco-Rep, it would be to be very attentive to the Eco-Reps. They all have their own projects, and it’s crucial to allow them to have their own independence to complete those projects. You are their resource, and I think that is the most important role of the head Eco-Rep.
You spent last summer working in Washington, D.C. What did you do, and what did you learn?
CA: At Washington, I worked in the office of Puerto Rican Congressman Pedro Pierluisi on legislation that would impact the lives of the communities back home. I was able to draft a bill that eventually made it to committee that would have allowed people on food stamps to maintain a cash advance, as well as increase their allowance to match that of the US States. The experience was incredible, and I realized how hard it really is to get anything done in Congress, given all the technical issues that come into drafting a bill. I also learned what it meant to be an adult, because I commuted to work for the first time, lived alone for the first time, and since it was an unpaid internship, I had to learn to live on a very tight budget.
You are about to graduate next year. What’s next? Do you see yourself continuing to combine your interests in policy and leadership with your environmental interests?
CA: Wow, this is a hard question. I plan on going to graduate school — hopefully law school — and be able to become a corporate lawyer. I plan on someday running for elected office or being an executive at a major company. Either way, I plan on using my experiences since middle school to influence culture in order to make an impact in favor of the environment. Hopefully, my little grain of sand will inspire others to do the same and eventually make our only world a better place.
As you look back at your time at Rice, what advice would you give to incoming students?
CA: I have three pieces of advice for the new students. First, study every day. Yes, it’s cliche, but at Rice, if you don’t do that, you will not be as successful as you can be. Rice is difficult, but with good time management, you can do as many things as you would like here. Next, don’t be afraid to goof off as well. All work and no play makes jack a dull boy — it’s okay to have fun every now and then, but keep your priorities straight and make sure you get your things done. Finally, you have something to learn from everyone you meet. That doesn’t just include your friends and professors. Even from the people who work here, like at H&D and the custodial staff, you can learn a great deal. Do not shield yourself from these amazing learning opportunities.
Finally, as a fellow travel geek, I can’t resist asking about your travel blog. How did you get started as a travel blogger?
CA: It started off when I started looking at other travel blogs when I was a senior in high schooll. I got in contact with a website, and after eight months of waiting, they requested a sample of my writing. Three more months passed, and then I was accepted as a blogger for their new website.
What have you found to be most rewarding about being a travel blogger?
CA: The most rewarding experience I have had as a travel blogger has been being able to inspire my friends to use their miles and points to travel farther. I have helped my cousin and his family travel to Europe, my aunt travel to Australia, and my immediate family travel to different places at a fraction of the cost it would to pay out of pocket. For me, material things are perishable, but experiences and memories last forever.
What travel advice do you have to share with others?
CA: I have two pieces of advice. First is if you have a rewards credit card, try using it instead of cash — keep the cash and save it to pay off the card. Those points can be used as cashback or points to take you to your dream vacation. With that in mind, points are very valuable. They make experiences possible and save you money, so use them very wisely.
If you could recommend one place in the world for others to visit, where would it be?
CA: My favorite city in the world is Tallinn, Estonia. But, since it’s a small city, I don’t think that many people would enjoy it as much as I do. If I had to recommend a place to visit, it would be Rome. There is so much history, culture, food, architecture, and things to do, that I could spend a semester there and still feel that I haven’t seen everything.