UNT student to graduate with one of first master's degrees in international sustainable tourism

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

University of North Texas graduate student Eric Norman may not have known the word "sustainability" when he went on Boy Scout camping trips to remote wilderness areas. But Norman said those experiences "planted in my mind that there are some things worth protecting."

On May 11, Norman, from McAllen, will become one of the first three UNT students to receive the university's "green degree" -- a master's degree in international sustainable tourism through UNT's first joint international degree program. Norman's diploma will have the names of both UNT's College of Merchandising, Hospitality and Tourism and CATIE (Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center) in Turrialba, Costa Rica.

Students in the master's program, known as MIST, take courses for one academic year at UNT, then go to Costa Rica for a second academic year to prepare for management and leadership positions in sustainable tourism -- tourism that strives to meet the needs of hotels, resorts, tour groups and other tourism markets without compromising natural resources or negatively affecting communities. The field includes ecotourism -- tourism to fragile, pristine and, usually, environmentally protected areas that strives to be low impact and on a small scale.

Norman said sustainability "is one of those things that just makes sense the more you study it."

"It isn't a corporate social responsibility ploy about adding skylights to have something nice to print in a brochure. It is about making changes that make a business improve its odds of success, like helping to alleviate the problems that face communities, reducing consumption of resources and ensuring that you earn adequate returns to keep doing the work that makes the whole cycle continue. It's a really beautiful way to approach life, and how you manage a company," he said.

Norman previously earned a bachelor's degree in hospitality management from UNT in December 2008. He was employed by Dallas' Fairmont Hotel before enrolling in the MIST program in August 2010.

"My plan was to study hospitality management before going to culinary school. I had been interested in cooking and food since elementary school, and I figured that I needed a business background to open my own restaurant," Norman said. "But I also really liked the outdoors, and I realized that what I enjoyed most about cooking was entertaining people. Being in a kitchen for hours wasn't appealing to me, and while I still love to cook, I became interested in the travel and tourism sector of the hospitality industry."

The summer after his freshman year at UNT, Norman participated in a sustainability program when he traveled to New Zealand with International Student Volunteers, a non-profit organization that provides university students with educational volunteer and travel adventure programs. He planted coastal grasses to prevent shore erosion, assisted with a wetlands survey and talked with local schoolchildren about the importance of conservation.

Norman found out about the MIST program when he visited UNT to recruit students to work at the Fairmont.

"I decided that I wanted to ensure that resource conservation and community involvement were integrated into the planning and operation of tourism projects," he said, adding that his months in Costa Rica have provided him with firsthand information on these projects. The country is recognized as a pioneer in environmental conservation.

Norman said much of the nation's work to set aside protected land comes from "citizens who have decided that the land is valuable to them."

After receiving his master's degree, Norman will return to CATIE to be a research assistant and program coordinator for the center's Sustainability Seminar Series, a four-week summer program that will start this year. Students from New Mexico State University, Oklahoma State University and UNT will earn six academic credits while studying the principles of sustainability in hospitality and tourism and learning from people who have put sustainable concepts into practice in Costa Rica. Norman said the series will be expanded next year to include agribusiness and environmental science.

He plans to eventually work as a consultant on tourism development projects.

"There are places in the world where the tourism industry is so underdeveloped that it's crucial that projects are handled delicately. If they're not done the right way, the people in these regions can wind up little better off than they were before, and sometimes worse," he said.

Note to editors: Eric Norman's commencement ceremony, the ceremony for all graduating master's and doctoral students, begins at 3 p.m. May 11 in the UNT Coliseum, which is located at 600 Avenue D. Norman will be in the Dallas-Fort Worth area beginning May 1, and he will return to Costa Rica in mid-July. Contact Nancy Kolsti in the UNT News Service, 940-565-3509 or nancy.kolsti@unt.edu, to get in touch with him. 


UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108