Seeing the Forest

About the MA Program

Nearly time to blast off: two major deadlines on the same day. September 1st is looming. What was I thinking?

I’ve been parallel planning for two epic adventures. The first being my 1000 mile bicycle commute from Montana to Minnesota to raise funds for need-based student scholarships for the program I direct. (To discover more about my trip, check out: The second being a far longer-lasting, time consuming, and detail-ridden challenge: a program plan approval to transition our 30-credit Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Sustainable Design to a full-fledged graduate degree. Undoubtedly both are fostering the expansion of my gray hair population (which my husband recently noticed and quipped, “you’re looking more, ah, more distinguished these days.” Yeah, thanks, Hon.).

Realizing the End Goal

Likely needless to say, there have been a lot of details to consider for both endeavors. Along this tandem journey I have discovered that they are actually quite similar processes that encounter similar obstacles and victories. The most important piece of the equation in both cases was to concretely define the end goal. Seems simple but it was agonizing! Once the goal was hammered out, difficult decisions needed to be made about the path that would be taken and how long it would take to arrive at the end goal. Then, a succession of waves of questions began to break on the first. Repeat. Questions like: what do we need to get there? what do we have already? where are the gaps and how will we fill them? what’s really needed versus wanted? what will make the projects leaner but not emaciated? And the kicker, how can they be sustainable, even restorative?

Before too long, I found myself buried in the details, digging my way through each question, each gear choice, each course learning objective, etc. All too quickly I couldn’t “see the forest for the trees.” With each detail I attempted to describe, investigate, observe, make decisions about, I got farther and farther from knowing and seeing the forest for what it is: a system made up of important individual components that cannot exist without each other, whether they be people, actions, or the relationships that connect them.

The Magnitude of the Moment

Enter a colleague and friend from MCAD. At just the nick of time he threw me a life line (and possibly the best quote I have ever heard) that was completely apropos for how I was feeling about my parallel planning processes:

 “We’re about to fly to the moon, but we’re too busy locating the emergency exits and wishing that we’d ordered chicken for the in-flight meal to really drink in the magnitude of the moment.–James Johnson

Thank you, James. So true! It caused me to take a breath, step back, look a the big picture, to search for the forest. Were we actually creating the program as intended? Were we honoring the needs of the students that will become program graduates one day? We’re we making head way? Check. Phew. Was the cycling trip coming together? Was gear arriving? Were donations coming in? Was the route (nearly) established? Check. Phew.

Now, instead of feeling overwhelmed and uncertain, I am feeling excited, nervous, and amazed. These journeys are really going to happen. No, strike that; they are already happening. We’re getting there. Inch by inch, draft version by draft version, slowly but surely. We’re getting there, we’re doing it. Together, connected, as with all healthy systems.

I can’t wait to mail off the final program plan approval as I head out the door with nothing but 1000 miles of open road in front of me and on my way to visit so many of the people that are diligently working to help both endeavors become a reality. When I do jump onto Sky (my old, sky-blue, Goodwill-rescue bicycle) I promise to (or, at least try really hard to!) not worry about the in-flight meal I ordered, and instead, drink in the magnitude of the moment. Until then, I will concentrate on getting my forests into focus.

Campaign Update:


We had a slow week for financial contributions this week, but I can see the forest! We’ve already raised nearly 1/2 our fundraising goal of $5000 in 4 weeks thanks to the generous donations of 46 people. THANK YOU!


Adventure Cycling: Missoula, MT

Alchemy Goods: Seattle, WA

Backcountry Boiler: Pittsburg, PA

Baladeo: Bagnolet, France

Bike Doctor: Missoula, MT

Bike Fixtation: Minneapolis, MN

Good Food Store: Missoula, MT

Hellgate Cyclery: Missoula, MT

Mike McDonald: Corvallis, OR

Nice Ride: Minneapolis, MN

Pacific Outdoor Equipment: Bozeman, MT

Teko: Boulder, CO

Bamboo forest image courtesy of Flickr CC @Robert S. Donovan

Cindy Gilbert / Former Director

Cindy is founder and director of Alula Consulting which specializes in innovative online and sustainability education projects for educational institutions, non-profits, and corporations. Recent clients include The Lemelson Foundation, VentureWell, Green Building Research Institute, University of Montana, PBS, Silverback Films, and more. Cindy has taught numerous courses and workshops, around the world and online, in the fields of biology, sustainability and biomimicry.

Cindy was the founding director of MCAD’s Sustainable Design program for 7.5 years which is home to the fully online, multidisciplinary MA in Sustainable Design (MASD) that is the first of its kind in the world. In this role, she fostered a culture of awareness and creativity through sustainable, innovative and collaborative design. Before MCAD, she served for nearly four years as the founding director of university education at the Biomimicry Institute where she developed and managed all higher education programs, including the professional certification program, annual education summits, affiliate and fellows programs, and design challenges. Cindy is based in Montana. Please contact her through LinkedIn.