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UAlbany Student Juggled Hard Times to Pursue Her Calling: Protecting Our Natural Resources

Katherine Czajkowski, walking along Indian Pond, returned to school as a wife and mother for a UAlbany degree in urban studies. She graduates this Dec. 3, becoming the Mohawk River Watershed Coordinator at Cornell University's Water Resources Institute. (Photos by Mark Schmidt)

Albany, N.Y. (Dec. 2, 2011) — Rotterdam native Katherine Czajkowski, who graduated from UAlbany at its Winter Commencement on Dec. 3, has battled the loss of her home, cancer and the challenges of simultaneously working full-time, attending college part-time and being a wife and mom. But along the way, Czajkowski found her true calling in life: protecting and restoring the environment.

More than 10 years ago, a water main break destroyed the home Czajkowski shared with her husband and two young daughters. They lost everything - furniture, clothes, and toys. With no home and an unfulfilling job, Czajkowski knew something had to change. She decided it was her.

Czajkowski returned to school, taking classes at Schenectady County Community College while continuing to work full-time. Just a few classes shy of graduation, Czajkowski was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer. After major surgery and chemotherapy treatment, she considered not returning to school. But she changed her mind after a conversation with her mother, who said she shouldn't let anything stand in her way.

She took her mother's advice and graduated in the spring of 2001. She was promoted to the position of engineering aide for her town's public works department and, in that role, became involved in the FEMA Flood Protection and Stormwater program.

"At the time, it appeared as if very little pre-planning was done on how the town should function. My personal opinion was that we had way too many pizza places and drug stores within our town," said Czajkowski. "Planning seemed to be done on a site-by-site basis, with little thought beyond the property boundaries, let alone beyond municipal boundaries."

She soon accepted a job with Schenectady County Soil and Water Conservation District as the regional stormwater specialist. She began to see the benefits of planning on a watershed basis rather than according to municipal boundaries. In order to be effective in the protection of our natural resources, she noted, it would require that municipalities begin working together. That's when Czajkowski became more interested in urban studies planning and enrolled in UAlbany's undergraduate program.

"If I wanted to make a change, I would have to arm myself with all the tools necessary, which would have to begin with educating myself on the history and theories associated with the program," said Czajkowski. "I applied to UAlbany and along the way to my degree, realized I was finally on the right path."

Czajkowski recently accepted a position with Cornell University's Water Resources Institute as the Mohawk River Watershed Coordinator. Her tasks include implementing the department's Mohawk River Action Agenda, designed to focus on the protection and restoration of the river, its watershed and its communities. She will also be pursuing her master's in regional planning at UAlbany.

"Katherine is fully committed to improving our communities through her work and daily activities. I believe her to be one of the best students I have had the honor of knowing and a terrific human being dedicated to her family, community and environmental sustainability," said David A. Lewis, director of UAlbany's Urban Studies Program.

Czajkowski is grateful for a very supportive family, who look past occasional dust bunnies on the floor if she hasn't had a chance to clean. She's also thankful for the encouragement of friends and co-workers when she's stressing over papers or tests. They have made a difference for her, the same way she hopes to make a difference in the community and in the watershed. But above all else, she said, she wants to set a positive example for her two daughters, now 25 and 22.

"I definitely think it is important for my daughters to know that it is never too late to go after something you really want, and that hard work and dedication will help you make it to your end goals," she said. "Your chosen career is something that you should be doing because it is something that inspires you, not because the money is good, or that you have so many years in that you are afraid to make a change."

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