My Life As….A Student Activist

While every college girl shares many of the same college experiences (selling books, sexiled, one shot too many), she also carves her own path and has her own unique adventure. Have you ever wondered what it’s like for other girls? What it’s like to be an engineer? To get married?! To play an NCAA sport? Well wonder no more. Our one-of-a-kind CollegeCandy writers (and readers!) are sharing their unique experiences and opening our eyes to different college worlds.

When you hear the word “environmentalist” or “activist” you probably get a picture of a dreadlocked, smelly tree hugger known for smoking marijuana, refusing to wear shoes and eating vegan.  However, in this day and age, many students across the country would consider themselves environmentalists and are engaged in political and environmental activism at the campus, local, national, and international level.   These students are not always hippies who won’t eat meat or refuse to shower.  In fact, most of them are normal, everyday students who just happen to have a passion for creating social change and empowering people.

I know this because I am one of them.

Climate change, the environment, and sustainability used to be fringe political issues that only the super liberal groups in society cared about.  While some people started organic farming (in both cities and rural areas) and using drying racks instead of electric dryers, the majority of the American population continued to move to the suburbs, buy more cars, and increase their energy consumption.  This created a country with the highest per capita carbon footprint in the world.  In the meantime, scientists, scholars, and politicians were beginning to take notice of global climate change and the Millenial Generation was busy waking up and getting engaged.  And it has forever impacted both the contemporary American university and its students.

Most colleges now offer degrees in Environmental Studies or something similar, and many require students to take at least one environmentally focused course in order to graduate. (At College of the Atlantic you can even get a scholarship for $10,000 a year if you have completed the Sierra Student Coalition’s environmental organizing training program!) Sustainability has become a buzz word both on campus and off, with magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and Sierra doing spotlights on different schools that are putting an emphasis on greening their campuses. And students across the nation are turning campus environmental clubs into powerful organizations that create lasting change.  Whether it is 12,000 youth attending PowerShift 2009 in Washington, DC or convincing college and university Presidents to sign the Presidents Climate Commitment, it is clear that the youth climate movement is powerful.

However, it’s not only changing colleges and universities; it’s changing the student as well.  Since I have become an activist, I have learned many things.  The first is that I will always struggle to balance being an activist and a student, and that there is just never enough time in the day.  Both require lots of time and energy and are extremely important to my future.  While I understand that academics are important and that getting good grades should be my first concern, I also know that good grades alone not very likely to get me a job.  My organizing experience, on the other hand, most likely will.  As an activist I have worked with world renowned environmental organizations such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, gotten published in multiple newspapers and learned skills that are in high demand with employers and look excellent on a resume.  Hopefully one day this will lead to me being gainfully employed.  In the meantime I am just try to learn how to get everything done.  For instance, as I write this article, I am thinking about the democratic theory term paper that really needs to be finished and the two flights I have to catch this weekend to take me to an environmental conference.  My life is devoid of all the free time most other college students enjoy, but the truth is that I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

While I don’t always get out to campus parties, am sometimes on conference calls while my friends are at the bar and am often away from campus doing activist work, I find that my social life is extremely rich.  I have dozens of amazing, inspirational friends on campus and around the world who are engaged in changing the world and living life, whether it’s by biking in a critical mass, hosting a vegan potluck, or having a sustainability themed dance party.  They are always available to talk to me when I feel overwhelmed and will welcome me into their homes at a moments notice.  Honestly, I don’t remember ever feeling more connected to a community before I became an activist.  Definitely makes all the late nights, hours spent in meetings and conference calls worth it.  My friends have taught me how to dumpster dive, fix my bike, live on very little money, and decrease my carbon footprint while enriching my life.  I have learned to love more and need less.

Activism has not only enriched my social life, but my academic one as well.  As a result of running campaigns such as PowerVote and attending COP15 in Copenhagen, I have made a name for myself on campus and become close with professors, administrators, and even got featured on my college’s website.   I have brought my experiences into the classroom and found it extremely rewarding.  Last spring, I took a comparative politics classes titled “The Politics of Protest” where we studied social movement theory and got to write about and discuss my experiences with protest and activism.  Now I am working on my senior thesis focused on the emergence of a global grassroots climate movement, something that I find intensely fascinating and rewarding.  And in October I am traveling to Kansas City to give a presentation titled “Cross Currents of Environmentalism: Academics and Activism” at the National Collegiate Honors Conference. To say I’m making the most of my time on campus is a gross understatement.

Sure I may be sober more often, have a little more stress, and sleep a little less than most college students, but seeing what I’ve accomplished for both myself and the planet, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

A big, hearty thank you to Chelsea of St. Mary’s College of Maryland for sharing her story….and saving our planet.



  1. Eimear says:

    This is an awesome story. I want to wish Chelsea all the best in her future and hope she continues to fight for the planet. :)

  2. Rachel says:

    While I think it is great to feature such a dedicated individual, there were several generalizations that seemed to undermine the entire point of the article.

    For example, not all vegans are hippies…just like not all activists are hysterical individuals with cardboard signs (although avoiding animal products, thereby not supporting factory farming, is one of the simplest things you can do to reduce your negative impact on the environment). =]

  3. misnomer says:

    Although I certainly don’t do as much as the author, I am also considered an activist on my campus. Its a reputation I rather enjoy, although the term I hear more often is “eco-kid.” I never realized all of the networking opportunities available to college environmentalists because most of the work done is focused on our campus, namely running the recycling program.

    This is perhaps my favorite post in the series. Best of luck, Chealsea in all the work you do.

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  5. Christine says:

    I also consider myself an activist [though I'm more in the realm of human rights than environmentalism — I do plenty of work for it, just haven't been as vocal about it], I'm so happy to see this article. Yes, there definitely aren't enough hours in the day to do this along with school, especially considering how much both affect a person in the short- and long-run.

    Easily the best post of CC, at least in a long time!

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