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Western Journeys: Bill Lane Center Student Profiles

“I stayed because of the people; I was surrounded by brilliant peers and supportive faculty!”
Stanford student Benek Robertson is pursuing a master’s degree in environmental communication. Before beginning his graduate studies, he found academic support and guidance through the Bill Lane Center for the American West (BLC).
Robertson first became involved with the BLC when he was a Stanford undergrad studying political science. During his sophomore year, he took the BLC’s American West class, which he said helped him see the connection between seemingly disparate academic topics, such as the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities.
“I felt supported as I branched out across these disciplines and received lots of great advice from mentors and peers at the Bill Lane Center,” he said.
The following summer he landed a job with the BLC, analyzing polls about issues such as climate change, immigration and tax policies.
“By studying public opinion across the Western United States, I helped to uncover trends among Western voters that impacted elections in 2018 and beyond,” he said. He added that the BLC’s internship opportunities inspired him in his search for work at the intersection of environmental justice, policy and politics.
Robertson later wrote an honors thesis titled “Parks, Petroleum, and Profits: Electoral Change and Preferences for Federal Land Management in the Interior Western United States.” Advised by Professor Bruce Cain, Robertson’s research focused on the role of demographic drivers in the electorate, such as regional migration and generational change. 
“By studying polling data, I argued for the continued growth of a Western voting bloc that supports protection and preservation of public lands, as well as the decline of public support for extractive industry in mountain West states,” he said.
Robertson said that working with Professor Cain and BLC researcher Iris Hui validated his curiosity about the role of public lands and the environment in politics, particularly in the Western United States. He also credits their mentorship with helping him identify the next step in his academic trajectory. 
“They helped me feel confident in my decision to join the Earth Systems department for my master’s degree,” he said.
Reflecting on his time at Stanford, Robertson said that the BLC became more than just a place to study.
“In our little corner of Y2E2, I found an academic home on campus,” he said. “It was full of diverse, engaging, interdisciplinary topics. I stayed because of the people; I was surrounded by brilliant peers and supportive faculty!”
MAX KLOTZ, Stanford, CA
“I got so many opportunities through the Bill Lane Center, and a nice support group for all of my academic endeavors.”
Stanford co-terminal student Max Klotz, B.A. ’20, grew up on the Stanford campus, often hanging out at the Dish and rec centers. But he said he never fully appreciated the Farm until he started visiting other colleges.
“That’s when I realized how special Stanford’s campus was and that I’d taken it for granted,” he said.
As an undergrad, Klotz discovered a new side of Stanford and all of the opportunities and resources available to students. A human biology major, Klotz initially intended to pursue a pre-med concentration, but soon realized he was much more interested in wilderness and environmental issues. He reached out to Iris Hui, a researcher at the Bill Lane Center for the American West (BLC), to learn more about work and research opportunities. He eventually landed an internship with the Santa Lucia Conservancy, a nonprofit conservation group that protects the ecological integrity of the Santa Lucia Preserve near Monterey, California.


As an intern, Klotz worked on various projects, such as mapping invasive species and assisting the conservation grazing program, which involved tending to a large herd of cattle. He also worked on a photography project that involved comparing historical photos of the preserve to the present day. The intricate process involved selecting historical photos with distinctive landmarks of the preserve. Then he identified the approximate location of each historical photo-point and mapped them using the MapItFast software.
“The final and most challenging step was to find the exact location for each historical photograph and take current pictures with the same framing,” Klotz said.
The full-time internship meant Klotz had to spend the summer living off-campus. He stayed in a bunk house near the preserve, and often took advantage of the area’s natural environment. 
“Once I got home for the day I could go for a jog or do these little hikes with almost no one around, which was really fun,” he said.
Through the BLC, Klotz also landed a second internship with Galatée Films, a French film production company. His job was to research indigenous and white settler music with the goal of providing the filmmakers with historically accurate information for the movie.
In addition to the internships, Klotz’s BLC involvement included taking the foundational American West class taught by senior professors Bruce Cain, David Kennedy, Alex Nemerov, David Freyberg and Shelley Fishkin. The center also provided him with two-thirds of the research funding for his thesis on national parks.
“My thesis focused on comparing the histories of the Yellowstone and Zion national parks,” he said. “This included the founding of both parks, the history of tourism, how tourism dynamics affected the ecology of the parks and what challenges they face going forward.”
Today, Klotz is working on his master’s degree in earth systems, focusing on environmental policy and land use. He credits his experiences with the BLC for helping to steer him toward his current career path.
“I got so many opportunities through the Bill Lane Center, and a nice support group for all of my academic endeavors,” he said.
To other students new to or considering Stanford, Klotz urges them to seek out the support and opportunities around campus.
“There are tons of centers and groups and organizations at Stanford that are willing to give resources, support or advice,” he said. “Look into that as quickly as possible and don’t let the four years go by if you’re really passionate about researching something.”
ALEX LI, Camarillo, CA
"The BLC has provided an academic community that I haven't found elsewhere on campus.”
Alex Li, ’21, knows the American West pretty well. He grew up in Camarillo, a small city nestled in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains at the southern end of California’s Central Coast. The area, Li explained, is incredibly diverse.
“Within a 20-mile radius, you have California's most remote national park, dense urban cores, wide expanses of farmland, a condor sanctuary, classic SoCal beaches, some of L.A.'s wealthiest neighborhoods,” Li said. “And the suburbia I know as my hometown.”

In 2017, Li left Camarillo to enroll at Stanford where he is majoring in civil engineering and minoring in history with a concentration in urban history. Since arriving on the Farm, he’s come to learn about an entirely new side of the West through his participation in BLC programs, like the Sophomore College course Fighting Over Our Common Heritage: Public Lands in the West
“That, simply put, was a spectacular introduction to our public lands, one that I never had despite using the public lands for nearly my entire life,” Li said.
“It was one of the most interestingly taught classes I took at Stanford, with lots of discussion and role-playing,” he said.
Although he hasn’t yet identified an exact career path he’d like to pursue after college, Li said the BLC has helped him develop a deep interest in resource management, which aligns with his interest in engineering.
“I think one of the principal goals of civil engineering is to develop natural resources sustainably for the beneficial use of the public,” he said. “And given our issues with food production, renewable energy, long-term water supply, raw materials and urbanization, the West will continue to influence American policy and standards of living for decades to come.”
Li is currently working on an independent research project on the limits of cohesive, regional urban identity. Western cities, he said, will provide an interesting case study, as they typically have much larger distances between them than their East Coast counterparts.
Li said that the BLC has given him a place to explore issues related to his studies and research, and what it means to come from the American West.
“More importantly though, it has provided an academic community that I haven't found elsewhere on campus,” he said.