Working Toward a Sustainable Future

Shannon kobran

After a transition from publishing to education and international development, former English major Shannon Kobran ’10 works to create a sustainable future as lead in the Kuala Lumpur office for Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Can you speak to how Dickinson’s useful liberal-arts education helped you along your career path?

My career path has two distinct forks—five years in publishing, and then a transition to education and international development. My Dickinson experience directly impacted the former: I worked as a tutor in the Writing Center. I proofread a professor’s manuscript. The indefatigable Professor of English and John J. Curley ’60 and Ann Conser Curley ’63 Faculty Chair in Global Education Wendy Moffat connected me with alumni in the publishing industry and strongly encouraged me to apply to the Denver Publishing Institute after graduation, which led to my first job. But I think it is the concepts of liberal arts and interdisciplinarity themselves that have been the most useful guideposts throughout the twists and turns of my career. My current work in sustainable development education often puts me in conflict with academics and institutions who are too comfortable in their disciplinary silos; and yet the field of sustainable development is inherently interdisciplinary, requiring deep systemic and societal change across and between sectors. The creation of a sustainable future—one where we have addressed climate change, created a circular economy, and ensured rights and dignity for all—depends upon innovation and people who are willing and able to see things from new and different perspectives. This is the essence of Dickinson’s style of liberal-arts education; and as a recipient of such an education, I can (and do) advocate passionately for multi- and interdisciplinary approaches in my work.

What was your favorite activity/organization at Dickinson?

I really loved my time as a Writing Center tutor! Of course, it was a great opportunity to hone the skills that would help me secure my first job, but it was also really fun. Especially during my sophomore year—the 2007-08 cohort of tutors became very close. People would hang out in the Writing Center even if they didn’t have a shift, and the waiting area was always full of lively conversation, witty repartee and dumb jokes.

How has Dickinson’s focus on global education impacted your life or career since graduation?

Dickinson’s focus on global education is the reason I chose to attend! I knew from the beginning that I wanted to study abroad, and I was drawn to Dickinson because of its wide variety of international programs. I spent my junior year in Norwich, UK; and more than a decade later, I still consider it one of the best years of my life. When I was ready to leave publishing and contemplating what else to do, I kept reflecting on my global experiences at Dickinson—both my year abroad and the international connections I forged on campus—and the important role they played in shaping my perception of the world and of myself. This ultimately inspired me to pursue my master’s in international educational development at Teachers College, Columbia University and led to my current career in global education for sustainable development.

What jumps out as a great memory from your time at Dickinson?

I consider this part of Dickinson’s “extracurricular” global learning: One of my best friends at Dickinson (and still a best friend to this day) was an international student from Syria. He had never seen Star Wars, so we made him watch the original trilogy. Though he said he’d never seen the films, I assumed he would at least be familiar with the characters and key plot points, since they are such a pervasive part of popular culture. He was not—and one of my favorite memories from Dickinson is hearing him gasp with genuine surprise when [SPOILER ALERT] Darth Vader tells Luke, “No, I am your father.” I’m not sure anyone on U.S. soil has had that reaction since Empire was released in 1980. It was a great lesson in assumptions and taught me to think twice when considering the ubiquity of American pop culture.

How do you stay involved with Dickinson? 

As I await my 15-year reunion, I continue to keep informed of the goings-on at Dickinson through the college’s outreach channels. I am always happy to see Dickinson’s recognition as a sustainable campus. I was also very excited to learn about the new master’s program in managing complex disasters. Not only is this a huge step for Dickinson, offering its first master’s program, but the subject and the holistic approach are exactly the type of sustainability-focused education that I advocate for, so I’m very proud! I’m also proud that Dickinson is a member of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s USA chapter, representing the perspective of the small liberal-arts college in a conversation often dominated by big research universities.

How did you get interested in your work, and what about it excites you most?

My job at the SDG Academy is a strange but perfect mix of everything that led to it. It combines the editorial eye, instructional design skills and EdTech savvy that I developed in educational publishing with the international development knowledge I gained at Teachers College and through my graduate internship with the United Nations Development Programme. The most exciting thing about my job is that I am always learning something new from experts around the world, like how to model extreme weather patterns from a leading professor of climate change, the impact of institutional corruption on individual wellbeing from a groundbreaking psychologist, or the importance of safeguarding the world’s living heritage from a network of UNESCO facilitators.

What does your current work entail?

I describe my job as part instructional designer, part project manager and part jack-of-all-trades. At the SDG Academy, we create online educational resources on sustainable development and the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, so that everyone can access the foundational knowledge they need to play their part in bringing about a sustainable future. Our nearly 40 massive open online courses are available for free on, one of the world’s largest online learning platforms; and they attract a diverse global audience of students, researchers, policymakers, professionals from a variety of industries and concerned citizens. On any given day, I might be drafting a syllabus for a new course, editing an expert’s lecture, overseeing the filming of course videos, designing assessments and activities, building the course on our tech platforms, answering student inquiries, advising educators on how to use our resources to enhance their own teaching, or presenting on the importance of education for sustainable development. We’re a very small team, so I have at times served as researcher, event organizer, marketing and communications manager or whatever else is needed.

What comes to mind as something unforgettable that you’ve done since you graduated?

I moved to Malaysia! The SDG Academy recently opened a new office in Kuala Lumpur, and I was offered the chance to lead it—so I took a chance and moved to the other side of the world in the middle of a pandemic. It had been a dream of mine to live abroad ever since my junior year in Norwich; but my publishing job took me to New York City, and I grew comfortable there over the years. The COVID shutdowns of 2020, though, made me reconsider my life in NYC, whether I needed or wanted to stay there. So, when my boss asked if I wanted to move to Kuala Lumpur, I knew I had to say yes. It’s been amazing so far!


Published January 21, 2022