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Alumni Stories: Hilary French '86

Keeping A Watch On The World's Environment

by Alina Gonzalez '08french

As a young girl, Hilary French found herself fascinated by the environment. Fortunately for our world, that interest continued through high school, Dartmouth, and deep into her professional life.

This year she celebrates a two-decade tenure-ship with Worldwatch—a research institute dedicated to achieving an environmentally sustainable society.

Hilary’s path to the realization of her childhood dreams began at home in Andover, Massachusetts where her father owned a sporting goods store. She and her family consistently “did a lot of outdoor activities like biking and cross country skiing.” When the time came for Hilary to fill out college applications, Dartmouth stood out as the ideal place to pursue her passions.

“I knew I wanted a college that was near the outdoors, a place where I could continue to ski competitively, and a college that was academically challenging, and Dartmouth fit the mold.”

Once at Dartmouth, Hilary says she was “pleasantly surprised” to find that two of her greatest interests—environmental studies and international relations— could be studied hand in hand.

“I was in college in the mid ‘80’s when environmental issues were just becoming international issues. It wasn’t immediately obvious to people that the two topics were connected, but at Dartmouth, I learned about international environmental issues through the Environmental Studies Department,” she says.

In fact, it was during one of her senior year classes that Hilary met the man behind the non-profit institution where she has worked for twenty years.

"One of the textbooks we used was Worldwatch's State of the World Report, and for a guest lecture, the founder and President of Worldwatch, Lester Brown, addressed our class. It was my senior year and I was looking for jobs, so I made contact with him and that’s how I eventually ended up at Worldwatch,” she says.

But even before her senior year, Hilary made the most of Dartmouth’s student resources. In the summer after her junior year, Hilary landed an internship with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva through the Dickey Foundation Endowment.

“The Dickey Foundation was quite encouraging and allowed people to work with the United Nations while providing funding,” she says. It was in Geneva that Hilary discovered the excitement, rewards and challenges that came with U.N. work.

“I believe in the concept behind the UN: if we are going to have peace in this world, it is important to get countries to work together on topics that bridge political divides, like children and the environment,” she says.

An added benefit became the stunning U.N. venue itself, she said. “I loved Geneva because of the outdoors:  There were beautiful mountains and lakes, and I would go on hikes with the UN hiking club.”

Hilary’s experience so captivated her that she interned with the United Nations again one year later. “My senior year, recruiters for the United Nations Development Program came to campus through the Dickey Foundation, and I had an interview and got the internship,” she says.

This time, the internship was in the capital of the Ivory Coast in West Africa. “It was quite the contrast,” she says. “It was my second time in Africa because I had had the opportunity to go to a conference in Africa while I was in Geneva, and that gave me the interest to go back.”

“It was hard because I was supposed to be working in French, and my French wasn’t too great, so I struggled during meetings. But I got the exposure and experience that I was looking for,” she says.

After the internship ended, Hilary moved to Washington, D.C. to search for jobs in the environmental arena. She worked briefly for an organization that funded entrepreneurs in developing sectors, but soon landed a position with the organization she has since been with for twenty years: Worldwatch.

“I’ve done a lot of different things for Worldwatch over that period of time,” she says. “It’s unique in that there are no barriers to advancing throughout the program in terms of graduate degrees. I just continued to move up through the ranks to the point that I was doing my own research and writing,” she says.

Hilary started out at Worldwatch as a research assistant, a job that she credits Dartmouth with as the college gave her extensive, substantive research experience.

“The thesis I wrote my senior year at Dartmouth was helpful in getting the job because Worldwatch is a research institute so there is a lot of research and writing involved, similar to the process of thesis writing. When Worldwatch asked me for a writing sample, I used my senior thesis, they read the whole thing, and I convinced them I was able to do the same kind of research and writing for them,” she says.

Ten years after her first day at Worldwatch, Hilary decided to take one year off to receive her Masters Degree at the Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. She then returned to Worldwatch and spent several years in management, including time as the Vice President of Research; now she is the Senior Advisor for Programs.

Her tasks include writing speeches, giving lectures, and, work that is “not that different from what Dartmouth students do:” research and writing. Currently, her research centers on the role of international institutions in environmental protection and the way in which globalization affects environmental issues.

These days, Hilary reflects on how her work has come full circle: she is writing a chapter on carbon markets for a State of the World Report—the very textbook that brought Worldwatch’s founder to Hilary’s senior year classroom at Dartmouth and first introduced her to the organization.

Still, Worldwatch stands as only one of Hilary’s jobs.

She also has been named a special advisor to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). “Ever since those days when I did my internships at Dartmouth, I was interested in the UN and eventually got the opportunity to work for them directly.”

Hilary’s work for the UN includes advising the organization on environmental policy issues, and trying to connect UNEP with non-governmental organizations in ways that would be “mutually useful.” As with Worldwatch, Hilary says she is energized by her work with the U.N.

Hilary’s professional odyssey since her Big Green days is shining proof that it is possible to make a career out of what you love.

“You’re going to be spending a lot of time working, so you might as well do what you enjoy.”

But she acknowledges that finding what you love can be a process in and of itself.

“I’m unusual in that I’ve stayed with one organization as long as I have, but many people experiment,” she says.  “It’s not like suddenly you have the magic answer. It can be something you struggle with throughout your career in various ways. Students should realize that they don’t need to feel pressure to have it all figured out because there are opportunities to change course. It’s a combination of thinking about what you are good at doing and where you can do that,” she says.

What the next twenty years have in store for Hilary remains unknown. Perhaps one day soon she will be the guest lecturer who introduces a new Dartmouth student to the world of Worldwatch. A professional full circle, indeed.






Last Updated: 6/21/12