Sustainability mentor program to be offered to UI underrepresented students

The UI Office of Sustainability is bridging the gap between underrepresented students and faculty members on campus to encourage diversity in sustainable science and open up important conversations to more voices.


Ryan Adams

The sign for the Office of Sustainability sits outside its new location on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. The office recently moved to communications building.

Annie Fitzpatrick, News Reporter

The University of Iowa Office of Sustainability is placing underrepresented students at the forefront of its focus through a new mentorship program that bridges the gap between students and faculty members in their professional development. 

The Underrepresented Students in Sustainability program is student-led and student-created. Faculty members within the sustainability sciences field pair up with students pursuing environmental careers to guide them during their time at the UI.

UI Office of Sustainability intern and co-creator of the project Julia Krist said a mentoring program not only reassures underrepresented students that they belong in sustainability sciences, but also adds voices to the important conversations surrounding the changing climate. 

“It’s important that they have somebody advocating for them, especially when historically that seemingly hasn’t been the case,” she said.

Hallie Lartius, another intern in the Office of Sustainability and co-creator of the program, agreed that marginalized communities’ voices are a necessary component in conversations about sustainability. Historical barriers barred these communities from sharing their input, she said, but mentorship from faculty members will reduce those limits.

“It’s so important that they be [in] the field, because so many of the issues at the forefront of environmental sustainability right now are about environmental justice and how climate change is going to impact marginalized populations,” Lartius said. 

Inspiration for the mentorship program came from other organization’s efforts and progress, Lartius said, and they began to develop the idea in August. Although mentors have begun volunteering, student applications are still open until Oct. 6. 

The Office of Sustainability revealed research this summer indicating an “incredible” lack of diversity in the leadership of sustainable organizations, Lartius said. These findings also led Lartius and Krist pursue the program, they said.

UI Sustainability Program Manager Blake Rupe said the program aims to help students excel. Because the field of sustainability is so broad, she said, Underrepresented Students in Sustainability will help guide participants through their classwork, volunteer and work experience, and professional development.

UI Associate Professor and Quantitative Scientist Silvia Secchi volunteered to mentor for the program. She said her decision to participate in the program is a result of her own experience as an immigrant working in sustainable science. 

Secchi said her firsthand experience as an immigrant means she understands the hardships of underrepresented students. Despite these challenges, she said, diversity is critical to advance the scientific process. 

“I am an immigrant, and I feel like I have an understanding of some of the difficulties these students go through,” Secchi said. “I am also very convinced that diverse science is better science.”

Secchi added that she joined the program because it acknowledges and challenges the lack of representation in environmental justice, problems, and awareness. The environmental movement is written and told as a white movement, she said, and it is important to be more inclusive. 

“To be more inclusive, white people need to remember their own white privilege and make a very conscious, mindful effort to be inclusive,” she said. “And that is also why I am doing this.” 

The Underrepresented Students in Sustainability program will benefit not only science, also UI students, Lartius said, which is what makes this program exciting. 

“By giving an extra voice to underrepresented students through these mentors … we’re opening the gate for change,” she said.


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