Steven Kraft

steven kraftBS mechanical engineering '06, MS chemical engineering '08

Occupation: Edible landscape designer, life-long student of the world
Residence: Northeast U.S. - nomadic
Community activities: Community garden design and implementation; DJ'ing; teaching food fermentation and other preservation techniques; farm-hand volunteering; volunteer homebuilding mentoring on a variety of skills/subjects including simple living, nutritious local/sustainable food coaching; self-empowerment, meditation

When and why did you choose to study abroad? What factors (your major, other commitments, Take Five) did you weigh as you were making the decision to study abroad?

Three of my siblings studied abroad during college, and seeing how much they gained from their experiences, it was a very natural choice for me to follow suit. I was singing in the Yellowjackets, and pursuing a heavy course load in engineering, which made the preparation to study abroad a bit of a hurdle. I also was taking Japanese language courses 5 days a week sophomore year. Somehow I felt it was very well worth the extra effort and pushed on to make it happen. Ganbatte!

Who at UR encouraged you to pursue this option?

I was actually discouraged by some faculty, who thought focusing on engineering was a better use of my time, and implied I was spreading myself too thin. However, a number of professors and folks at the study abroad office were tremendously supportive and led me through the bureaucracy necessary to make it all happen. The study abroad office also had a few events to prepare students who would be studying abroad. I also bonded with Jackie Levine and Glen Cerosaletti, to whom I am still grateful, today.

In retrospect, what do you wish you had known before starting your study abroad experience?

I wish I could have known how rare the opportunity was to live in a foreign country, for people after they leave a university setting. I was extremely fortunate to have landed a spot living with a Japanese family, which changed the rest of my life for the better. The students who lived in the dorms did not have nearly as rich of an experience. While I learned a lot of Japanese language and much about their lifestyle, I wish I could have immersed myself even more deeply into their culture and spent a full year abroad instead of just one semester.

Beyond the academic work, how did you engage with your new "community" and culture while you were away from Rochester?

Living with a Japanese family brought me into direct touch with the culture and forged relationships that today, 9 years later, I still maintain. Moreover, my school was filled with Japanese students in addition to Americans, and so I was able to make more Japanese friends. I ended up DJ'ing, runway modeling, and spending a lot of time exploring Tokyo.

What was returning to campus like for you?

Cold, snowy, and not particularly fun. I didn't know it at the time, but my host mother helped me see a lot about myself and my lifestyle that I had never examined, while living in America. When I returned to the States, so many things I saw were painful and I was finally seeing my old ways as a bit of an outsider. This was truly a culture shock, and to this day my perspectives concerning resources and wastefulness have shifted permanently.

What did you do immediately after graduation? How did you decide to take that path?

Immediately after graduation I traveled to China to take my first summer off in four years. Without a doubt, this was a move I would only have felt confident to make after having had study abroad experience. My plan was to travel without any itinerary, but I ended up staying in Shanghai, DJ'ing, making friends with ex-pats, and eating a wide range of Chinese foods, and having fun. Following that I started in the fall as a masters student in the Chemical Engineering program where I studied sustainability and alternative energy technologies.

What do you do now and why did you choose this career?

I am now completely independent and choose to work on projects in a wide variety of areas including permaculture design and edible forest gardening. My graduate studies were heavily focused on sustainability and bio-fuels, an earth-based resource. This work, combined with a strong mentor and advisor, helped me to re-evaluate the way I interacted with my environment and the world around me. It motivated me to do 'work' that is directly in line with my philosophies, to put my energy into projects that I feel have value, in supporting causes I am passionate about. This way of living encourages physical and mental well-being, and allows for a great deal of time in beautiful
and inspiring environments.

What skills, tools, or knowledge gained from studying abroad do you draw on since graduation?

Studying abroad has brought me so many skills, only some of which I am probably conscious of, and able to articulate. Specifically, I learned to be much more open-minded. This is true in areas concerning my life including new foods, how many material goods I feel I 'need' to be comfortable, to look forward to trying new things and experiencing things that are fresh and foreign. I also travel with confidence and ease, and pack lightly. In addition, the knowledge of how people live in a place with fewer resources helped me to continuously examine my own lifestyle, which has changed the entire course of my life for the last 9 years. I will never be able to see resource usage the same way. I lick my plate clean, and try to take only what I need. Most importantly I gained the knowledge that more material does not equate to more happiness.

Where would you like to be in five years?

In five years I would like to be living in a clean and natural environment where I have a direct and co-creative relationship with a landscape and community. Stewarding the land, and providing my needs through natural means is my ideal lifestyle. In this environment I could be a stronger leader and teacher, as I would be living earnestly in the way that I wish, and would have a solid foundation from which I could share skills and philosophy with eager minds.

What advice do you have for current students contemplating studying abroad?

I would most highly recommend studying abroad in a place as foreign to your comfort zone as possible. If you are able to, try to live with a family, and avoid spending your time with English speaking students on your trip. Meet and interact with locals. Concerning your selection of location and your major or field of study, make sure that you take time to ask what the motivation is behind these choices. If the courses and major you have selected are truly inspiring to you, your life will unfold more beautifully and enjoyably, than if you were to make choices based on other factors. This same philosophy is one I would hold in selecting a field of graduate study and for how you choose what to do after school. Take a breath, have fun, and try to be grateful for the time you have at school, and while you are abroad - the world is yours, so make of it what you dream.