Harriet stands by a waterfall.

On Promoting Youth Climate Action

Harriet McSurdy ’23
‘‘Prior to attending Oberlin, I was unaware of the extent and impact of climate change. In the fall as a first-year, I was introduced to research in the environmental studies department and was moved by the passion of professors. Something was different about Oberlin: There were people talking about the issue, providing concrete ways by which we can help, and conducting concrete research to make the world more sustainable.’’

Prior to attending Oberlin, I was unaware of the extent and impact of climate change. I knew it was an important issue, but I never dedicated myself to learning more about it. It was always glossed over in textbooks and remained unacknowledged by teachers. The single environmental science course at my school was a joke; the most memorable thing was students making homemade pasta sauce.

All of this together caused me to remain comfortable, distant, and ignorant of the issue. I was also oblivious to the idea that I could do anything about climate change. I didn’t realize that I could have a personal, meaningful impact on the planet.

My entire mentality changed upon arriving on campus first in the summer of 2019 for the STRONG Program and then in the fall as a first-year. I was introduced to research in the environmental studies department and was moved by the passion of professors. Something was different about Oberlin: There were people talking about the issue, providing concrete ways by which we can help, and conducting concrete research to make the world more sustainable.

These initial experiences and exposure made me actualize my role and responsibility. I began to determine the many ways in which I could make a positive impact in my community, in my school, and in the world. However, it was not clear cut that environmental studies would be an academic focus. I was undecided in my major and still, barely had any direction. I was just learning and discovering.

This summer, I interned with a non-profit organization in my hometown, Nashville, the Cumberland River Compact. This organization seeks to educate the public and provide resources that allow people to live more sustainably and to support the fight against climate change. Focusing on their education and outreach initiatives, I dedicated my time to researching and creating climate action content for their social media pages, specifically for their youth engagement account.

This work gave me the opportunity to create something for others that I wish I had when I was a high school student. I wish I had been prompted much earlier to make a positive impact on the environment. I wish others around me had taken it more seriously and that my previous teachers had talked about climate change seriously. I wish I had had more resources. Realizing what I had lacked made me realize the importance of educating youth and raising awareness.

By doing this work, I felt like I was providing for youth the information and encouragement I didn’t even know I was missing just a few years earlier. My work was helping others, specifically, youth, better understand the deadly effects of climate change and allotting them a sense of agency in addressing the issue.

Although I am still learning which aspects of environmental work I enjoy and which I want to explore next, this internship, combined with my on-campus experience, provided me a sense of direction and purpose. I have declared environmental studies and psychology as my majors, and I am continuing to look for ways to combine the concepts of motivation, engagement, and agency with an understanding of climate change and supporting a sustainable future.

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