Eric Miller, West High Grad

Eric Miller, West High Grad
Posted on 12/12/2019
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Thursday, December 12, 2019

‘A once-in-a-lifetime experience’

Fulbright scholar, Wausau West grad studies environment in Laos

Keith Uhlig Wausau Daily Herald | USA TODAY NETWORK – WISCONSIN

RIB MOUNTAIN – When Eric Miller was growing up, the Rib River streamed by only a block away from his home. It was like a playground.

He and his friends would do "quite a lot of paddling, fishing and camping back there," Miller said. "I remember being fascinated with how something across the street from me connected to the world."

In a way, the Rib River has taken him all the way to Laos and into a Fulbright scholarship. Not literally. But the interest he had in the river helped propel him to become a graduate student at the University of Maine where he’s pursuing dual master’s degrees: a master’s of science in resource economics and policy and a master’s of arts in global policy with a concentration in international environ-

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PHOTOS COURTESY OF ERIC MILLER

"I’m excited and grateful for the opportunity to connect with so many different perspectives."

Eric Miller

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mental policies.

And through those studies, he decided to apply to the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, the prestigious program that was started in 1945 to promote "international goodwill" through student exchanges in "the fields of education, culture and science."

When he applied, he didn’t know what his chances were to be selected. But he thought he’d at least give it a try. So he was thrilled when Fulbright officials accepted his proposal to study how development, economics and the environment intersect in Laos, a fastdeveloping country in Southeast Asia. He’s been there since September, in the midst of a 10-month study program.

"I love to travel," Miller said. "And it’s an incredible opportunity, of course. ... It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

Miller could not have imagined all this when he was a student at Wausau West and wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to do, even after graduating in 2011. It wasn’t until he was studying at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that he started to look at the environment as a career. He would graduate from there with a degree in conservation biology in 2015.

After that, he worked as a water quality technician for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, based in La Crosse. While doing that work he saw first-hand the impact that economic forces had on the environment.

As he’s gotten into his graduate studies, he’s been attracted to a concept called "payment for economic services." It’s a strategy that aims to use economic interests to help preserve the environment, by paying people and communities to make green choices and work to preserve the land, water and air.

This is complicated, difficult work. "You are valuing things in a way that don’t seem like you can quantify," Miller said.

But done right, he said, "it can be a win-win."

Miller chose to study in Laos because the country is at a stage in development that makes it ripe to delve into environmental economics. Laos aims to become one of the key sources of electrical power for Southeast Asia, and Miller said that Chinese companies are heavily investing in massive hydropower projects.

In a blog that Miller is writing for the University of Maine, he describes the changes.

"Several massive dams, financed, constructed, and operated by Chinese enterprises, have asserted themselves on the Nam Ou River’s natural flow," he wrote. "If you wish to understand Laos’ geopolitical situation among its immediate neighbors, it only takes a short van ride through the north to get an idea."

Miller is working with Phouphet Kyophilavong, a professor and researcher at National University of Laos, to determine how payment for economic services can make a difference in Laos. Kyophilavong has written extensively on how economic development in Laos impacts the natural environment.

"I’m excited and grateful for the opportunity to connect with so many different perspectives," Miller said.

Miller had Hmong friends when he was growing up, and that’s another reason he asked to be placed in Laos.

"I had a lot Hmong friends playing soccer," he said. "And it was really a formative experience." Studying in Laos, he said, allows him to delve deeper into the culture he got to know as a child and teenager.

Miller is not alone in his year in Laos. Teresa Rock, his significant other of six years, is with him. Rock is also a Wausau native and graduate of Newman Catholic High School. She recently graduated from the University of Maine with a doctorate in physical therapy.

While Miller studies the intersection of the environment and economics, Rock is also learning about Laotian culture and searching for volunteer opportunities in the health care field.

Rock said she was "very proud and excited" to learn that Miller was awarded the Fulbright grant. "It’s been really neat to see someone find their passion," she said.

Contact Keith Uhlig at 715-845-0651 or kuhlig@gannett.com. Follow him at @UhligK on Twitter and Instagram or on Facebook.