Sanya Cowal: Resilience and agency

Sanya Cowal was drawn to UC Santa Cruz for the interdisciplinary nature of the environmental studies department. Cowal studies agroecology and sustainable food systems, specifically coffee systems’ ecological and social dynamics. She is interested in working with coffee producers to manage the consequences of climate change and agricultural intensification by coupling agroecological resilience with farmer agency.

“I am passionate about working within the intersection of people and the environment and found that UCSC’s environmental studies program not only enables but encourages interdisciplinary research,” Cowal says. “I found a unique opportunity here to explore sociology within my environmental work.” 

Cowal was awarded the Jessica Roy Memorial Award in 2022. Cowal says the scholarship has contributed to a research project investigating the role of gender-based differences in coffee producer adaptive management through the lens of female producer agency.

Family, friends, and colleagues established the Jessica Roy Memorial Award in 2005 to honor the memory of UCSC graduate student Jessica Roy. The scholarship is given to graduate students within any department who have a demonstrated interest in or are pursuing studies focusing on the equitable distribution of natural resources in international development, especially as that equity applies to women. 

The award is intended to provide its winners with stipends to support fieldwork, travel, and research.

In addition to her current research, Cowal has also worked on two publications, A Study of Regenerative Farming Practices and Sustainable Coffee of Ethnic Minorities Farmers in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, and Understanding the Perceptions of Sustainable Coffee Production: A Case Study of the K’Ho Ethnic Minority in a Small Village in Lâm Đồng Province of Vietnam.

Cowal says her TA experiences have affirmed her love of teaching. She hopes to become a professor of environmental studies, teaching within an interdisciplinary social justice framework and continuing to research with her students. Cowal also hopes to work with organizations such as the Rainforest Alliance conducting agroecological community-based work, especially within the coffee sector.

Cowal plans to graduate with a Ph.D. from UCSC in 2026 and is grateful for her memorable interactions with faculty along the way. 

“My Ph.D. advisor invited me to my first Agroecology Working Group dinner, a group of graduate students and professors who foster community over shared meals,” Cowal says. “As we ate falafel and learned and laughed together, I felt a very intentional and tangible community created by incredible faculty who care deeply for their students beyond the classroom.”