SDSU alumnus transforms passion for sustainability into purposeful career

Nick Vallejo (‘22), a recycling specialist with the City of San Diego, thrives on educating the public about climate action solutions.

Monday, April 15, 2024
Nick Vallejo (‘22)
SDSU alumnus Nick Vallejo has developed food donation programs in San Diego that ensure surplus edible food is recovered instead of decomposing in a landfill.

Nick Vallejo (‘22) found his calling when he switched his major from communications to sustainability upon transferring to San Diego State University. Vallejo registered for two courses in geography that changed his career focus. 

In Lecturer Jane Thorngren’s Earth’s Physical Environment and Conservation Science and Policy course, Vallejo remembers it as an overview of climate and the history of how humans created industrial processes that resulted in climate change. 

“Every day I would go into that class and then leave feeling flatlined because I was unaware of how many mistakes humanity had made in progressing society through industrial means, and how it's all compiled into the state of the planet’s current health,” he said. “But you can’t address hard problems without learning its hard truths. The education was necessary to find solutions or create them.”

That course provided Vallejo with a hopeful road map by highlighting the many laws in place that address climate change. Little did he know he would be involved in facilitating some of these climate action laws later in his career.

Career with purpose 

After graduation in 2022 with a degree in sustainability, Vallejo was invited to join the 2022-23 cohort of fellows in the California Climate Action Corps (CCAC), a partnership between the California governor's office and AmeriCorps that funds environmental activism. During his fellowship, 150 fellows across the state based in government, business, nonprofits, and schools focused on three areas: urban greening, wildfire resilience, and food recovery. The 2023-24 CCAC cohort has more than 300 fellows.

“When I started with the California Climate Action Corps, a big focus was climate communication,” Vallejo said. “How do you go about informing people about the stark reality of abundant CO2 in the atmosphere, an acidifying ocean, mass extinction, and more without folks feeling hopeless? It’s an interesting challenge with exciting opportunities to be innovative and creative.” 

“Folks may not necessarily feel as connected to forest fires in Europe,” he added, “but they will be invested if an invasive species of weeds poses a fire hazard in their backyard; simplify the problem, make it personal, provide solutions.”

During his fellowship, Vallejo also helped roll out the more than 213,000 green organics recycling bins and 281,000 kitchen pails delivered across the City of San Diego.

When his fellowship ended in August 2023, Vallejo was invited to continue working with the city and in February he was promoted to recycling specialist.

The position helps implement SB 1383, the state law designed to reduce emissions by diverting organic waste from landfills.

Vallejo also has developed food donation programs that ensure surplus edible food is recovered instead of decomposing in a landfill and emitting harmful greenhouse gasses. He works with local grocery stores, food distributors, wholesale food vendors, and food service providers. His team works with over 700 restaurants, hotels, hospitals, event companies, and venues in the city.

What he likes about the job is the variety. He might work from the downtown central library one day, head to San Ysidro to help a business the next day and meet with his team at the office in Kearny Mesa the day after. 

Creative dreamer

“When I do take a step back and reflect, a big smile smothers my face when I see residents using their green bins, friends telling me they’re collecting their bottles, and organizations I’ve assisted on the news getting awards — it is good to see that my work isn't going unnoticed,” Vallejo said.

Vallejo knows his work is just getting started.

“I'm always dreaming, I'm always looking to tomorrow; I see a world thriving in an equitable, sustainable, energy-efficient way of life, and how I try to find the connection points to make it a reality today. That's what motivates me to keep going because the future is bound only by our imagination and collaboration,” he said.

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