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Surf’s up

Mariah Gill, an avid surfer and first-generation college student, will study environmental management at Yale University. (Photo/Pamela J. Johnson)

Mariah Gill and her two sisters were infants the first time their father took them surfing. Living in Southern California for the past four years, the 21-year-old USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences senior has made surfing into a regular activity. On any given morning, her hair, the color of ripened wheat, is damp from an early-morning surf at El Porto Beach in El Segundo.

Back home in Lahaina, Hawaii, Gill’s mother, Margo, tends to the 120 chickens and six goats at the family farm. Gill’s father, Damon, worked his way up at a county water treatment plant from groundskeeper and now is an officer overseeing the water quality.

“More than anything,” Gill replied, when asked if she misses Maui. But now Gill, who graduates today with a bachelor of science degree in environmental studies from USC Dornsife, will venture to a place where “bundle up” replaces “surf’s up.”

The first-generation college student is bound for Yale University, where she will pursue her master’s degree in environmental management.

“This is a whole new adventure,” Gill said. “I’ve never been in freezing weather so it’s going to be crazy. I’m treating it as if I’m going to visit another country.”

As a USC McNair Scholar, Gill delved into research that looked at the planning process of a marine-protected area off the coast of Malibu and news reports about community sentiment on the issue.

She also took advantage of USC Dornsife’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fund and Student Opportunities for Academic Research.

Through these programs, she studied community-based research management, which involved researching and developing solutions to local problems, such as establishing fishery protection zones. Gill’s geographic area of study was Maui, where she examined fisheries.

Growing up in an island paradise, Gill feels strongly about protecting the environment.

It took her awhile to figure out that her heart lay in studying the interaction between the environment and people rather than environmental engineering. Seeing herself someday designing water treatment facilities, she entered USC as a student at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

“I learned that chemistry and math were not my style,” she said.

In her sophomore year, she visited Jim Haw, USC Dornsife’s environmental studies program director.

“I was a little lost,” Gill recalled. “I told him I didn’t see myself as an engineer. I didn’t see myself wearing a suit all my life. He said, ‘Why don’t you join our program?’ ”

Haw, Ray R. Irani Chairman of Occidental Petroleum Chair in Chemistry, and professor of chemistry and environmental studies, placed Gill in the Problems Without Passports program’s first environmental studies course in Guam and Palau, where she went scuba diving while researching biodiversity.

“Why not continue my research on the East Coast?” she said.

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