Q & A: Alexandra Cousteau
Georgetown College: What drew you to Georgetown?
Alexandra Cousteau: I really liked the international aspect of it. I thought campus was beautiful. It was small, and didn’t have a Greek system, which was definitely a plus for me — I didn’t want to get in a social construct where sororities and fraternities were important. And I liked DC! There were a lot of things happening in DC that were of interest to me: conferences on environmentally sustainable development, people that I wanted to meet, organizations that I thought were doing great work.
GC: What does it mean to you to come back to Georgetown?
AC: I loved my time at Georgetown. I didn’t go abroad — I traveled my whole life, so being at Georgetown for four years was a welcome break. I’d graduated early from high school, taken a gap year, and lived in Spain, so I loved settling in and enjoying my four years on the Hilltop. So to come back almost 20 years later, give a commencement speech, and be honored this way … it’s really overwhelming. When Dean Gillis called me, I burst into tears. I was so moved by that. I miss college!
GC: What’s the most valuable thing you learned or experienced here?
AC: This was really where I found my voice. When I was at Georgetown, my grandfather was one of the most famous men in the world. Everyone knew who Jacques Cousteau was. After having grown up very much in the shadow of a very famous grandfather and father, with a very strong legacy and way of life — I went on my first expedition at six months old, so I jokingly say that I was brainwashed into this lifestyle — it was at Georgetown that I first had the chance to study things that were interesting to me.
It helped me gain a much more defined sense of self, and what I wanted. Not to say I did anything radically different — I didn’t go become a doctor or anything, I’m still in the family line of work. But I was really able to calibrate what I was interested in and meet people who were inspiring to me other than my grandfather. That was really important.
GC: Who were your favorite professors?
AC: Richard Matthew was great. Dr. [Timothy] Beach was great. Marsha Darling — I took her feminist and women’s studies course, and she was great. Father [Stephen] Fields, who taught me Problem of God, was actually the priest at our church in Connecticut. My brother was an altar boy with him — we’ve known him for a long, long time. Professor Lepgold, who taught Intro to International Relations.
I had some great professors. I loved how small the classes were. The only things I wish existed at the time — which exist now! — were more environmental courses. At the time, I really had to search for it. It wasn’t as abundant, but there’s a lot more of it now — I wish I could go back and enjoy some of those resources.
GC: Can you pick a favorite class?
AC: That’s hard, but I think I’d have to say Richard Matthew’s course in environmental security. That’s where I became acquainted with Thomas Homer-Dixon and some of the other academics that I still follow. I think it was the most influential in shaping how I see things now. It’s amazing to me, now, living in Berlin — where, obviously, you’ve heard there’s a refugee crisis. So much of what’s going on in the world, from climate change to environmental refugees, I studied in that class. At the time, it was very abstract — we still had winters, right? And now it’s unfolding.
GC: Favorite building on campus?
AC: My second year, I lived in Copley and loved it. … The campus has changed a lot, but I loved that, and I loved the ground floor of Healy, overlooking the courtyard and Dahlgren Chapel. It’s just a really peaceful spot.
GC: Anything you wish you had known or done as a College student?
AC: No. I really took advantage of the city — I was kind of nerdy, actually. I went to a lot of conferences, learned as much as I could about things that mattered to me, met the people I wanted to meet. I actually have no regrets!
GC: Do you have advice for the modern College student or recent graduate?
AC: Travel. That’s what I always tell university students. When you graduate — unless you’re absolutely crippled with student debt, which I know is the case for a lot of people — this is a time when you’re freer than any other time in your life. Most people don’t have families. They aren’t married. They’re totally free. Exploring, having adventures, meeting people … doing that is one of the greatest experiences you can have. Things happen that you’ll remember forever — and I don’t mean, like, Señor Frog’s in Cancun. I mean life-changing experiences that give you perspective, help you grow, learn your limits, learn what you’re capable of, and open your mind to foreign cultures, people, food, and experiences. As someone who’s traveled my whole life, I point to that as what’s shaped me more than anything else.
You’re planning to retire in what, 2050? 2065? What’s the world going to look like then? There’s climate change, coral reefs gone, deforestation out of control, hundreds of millions of people on the move … getting to know that world now, before whatever happens, is a great thing to do.
GC: Do you have a favorite trip, or a recommendation for travel people might not think about?
AC: I’m a big fan of Latin America. The culture is very warm, the people are warm, and there’s history and challenges and incredible natural wonders — and there’s reality and poverty too, but I love it there. I lived in Costa Rica for a couple years, and it’s a wonderful region of the world.
The other places I love are those that remind me what the world was like before the Industrial Revolution. The number of places like that is microscopic. I went diving in Sipadan, Malaysia, and that was amazing. In the Okavango Delta in Botswana, you can’t drive five kilometers from the airstrip to the lodge without encountering elephants, giraffes, zebras, warthogs, everything. I get really excited when I’m able to glimpse that kind of abundance and diversity.
But I think my favorite experience isn’t any one spot, but rather the feeling I get when I get off the plane in a place I’ve never been. Everything is different — it smells different, it sounds different, people look different, the environment around the airport is different, and I have no idea what’s going to happen other than that it’s going to be an adventure. That’s my favorite part of travel.
GC: Is there any environmental issue — in your area of study or otherwise — that you would encourage us to pay attention to?
AC: Climate change. All the scientists I know say the same thing. They were studying other things, but what they were studying before may not even exist if we don’t solve that. People are getting really engaged, and it’s exciting to be part of something like that. We can’t fail at this. It’s just not an option. Everybody needs to make that a priority, with how they vote, what they buy, what they eat — the whole nine yards.
It’s hard for kids graduating college to project themselves in the future, with a family and kids and everything. But if you want to grow old in a world that resembles the one you grew up in, you have to get involved in environmental issues. It’s not a red or blue issue — that’s just people distracting us from real changes that are going to hurt, if we don’t do anything.
Interview conducted by Patrick Curran and edited for length and clarity.