Commencement at Virginia Tech will be a time of celebration for Frances Dowd of Fairfax, Va., a senior pursuing a dual degree in environmental policy and planning from the College of Architecture and Urban Studies and applied economic management from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Not only will Dowd be finishing out the 2014 track and field season as a competitive mid-distance runner, she’ll also keep up pace the academic-wise, taking on graduate studies full time.

“I wanted to finish my athletic eligibility. I had been injured, so I had some extra time,” Dowd said. “After I found applied economic management, I really wanted to pursue a full degree instead of just the minor. I decided staying for five years would be beneficial for me.”

Dowd dual-enrolled and, by the end of this spring, will have 12 credits toward her master’s degree in applied economic management wrapped up. She will continue progress on her master’s this summer and through next year so she can graduate – again – next spring.

Finding a balance between being a student and an athlete can be challenging. Since Dowd competes in three seasons of sports – cross country, indoor track and field, and outdoor track and field – she doesn’t have an off-season athletically, practicing up to 20 hours a week on top of her course load. Dowd, however, was able not only to pull off the balancing act, but excel at it, earning a near-perfect grade point average.

“You have to be really committed. You can’t just say, ‘I’m busy today. I can’t come to practice, coach.’ I really had to stay on top of time management,” Dowd said. “The toughest was group projects, because I hated being the one who couldn’t meet because of practice. I was very fortunate to have classmates and teachers who were flexible with me and supported me as a student-athlete so I could be successful at both rather than having to sacrifice one.”

With a rigorous training schedule, Dowd did not have a lot of free time to pursue opportunities such as studying abroad for a semester. Last summer, however, Dowd found a program that did fit her practice schedule, allowing her to travel to Ecuador to conduct research on conservation agriculture.

“We spent two weeks in the capitol learning Spanish through intensive language lessons. Then we had four weeks in a small, rural farming town. We went out for five to six hours every day to interview farmers to see what motivated them to choose certain conservation agriculture practices,” Dowd said.

Beyond the practical knowledge she gained in an academic area of interest, Dowd said the trip helped diversify her college experience.

“It gives you a broader view of the world and how other people live,” Dowd said. “You hear people say that money doesn’t buy happiness, but you really see that abroad. People live differently than you, but are just as happy or even happier than you.”

After her master’s degree is completed next year, Dowd is unsure if she will pursue a doctorate degree or jump into work in environmental markets right away. She does know, however, that she hopes to shape the way people look at and use the environment.

“I wouldn’t say I'm your typical ‘tree hugger,’ but I am passionate about using our resources in a smart and sustainable way,” Dowd said. “I understand that as humans, we are animals and should use the Earth, but we should do so in a much more logical way, taking into consideration all of the costs.”

It’s an environmental ideal Dowd is sure to tackle in whatever career path she ultimately pursues.