U-M student sustainability leaders join Vice President Kamala Harris for Earth Day reception

By Heather Guenther

On the eve of the first winter 2023 final exams, seven U-M students left Ann Arbor for a whirlwind trip to Washington, D.C., where they heard an energetic lesson covering the Biden-Harris administration’s latest environmental actions that could only be delivered outside the classroom.

Earlier this month, an unexpected email invitation led the students to rearrange their schedules during the final, hectic days of the term. The message contained a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, signaled within the opening line: “On behalf of the Vice President of the United States.”

The students joined Vice President Kamala Harris, climate leaders and other student activists on April 20 at the Vice President’s residence for a reception celebrating Earth Day.

A “hundred other things going on” didn’t stop Lashaun Jackson, a senior studying environment and food studies with a focus on sustainable food systems, from an enthusiastic acceptance. How did Jackson balance a full academic course load, extracurriculars and a surprise D.C. trip? “Honestly, YOLO,” said Jackson. 

“This is really important work, especially in the face of all the [negativity]  that goes on in the world,” said Jackson. “I want to be able to go to bed at the end of each day with the satisfaction of knowing that I am contributing to the world in a positive way.” 

Five University of Michigan students standing outside of the Vice President's house in Washington, DC.
Left to right: Chase Dautrich, Jasmine Paulk, Stephanie Rosas, Lashaun Jackson and Andrew van Baal

YOLO—shorthand for “you only live once”—is applicable to the students’ quick attendance decision making, and also their thoughtful reflections on the current climate crisis. 

“The urgency of the modern environmentalism movement calls us all, from all different backgrounds, to do the meaningful work we can within our communities to ensure a healthy and equitable climate future for all,” said Andrew van Baal, a sophomore majoring in both political science and environmental studies.

And so, called to action—and to the U.S. Vice President’s residence—the seven U-M students packed their bags and prepared to meet with others involved in the climate movement.

A lesson outside 

A few days before the world celebrated Earth Day, held annually on April 22, the U-M cohort gathered in the backyard at the vice president’s residence, a 19th-century house located at Number One Observatory Circle in northwestern Washington, D.C. 

There was time to mix and mingle before Stephanie Rosas, a student in the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, kicked off the formal program and remarks. 

Rosas, the communications coordinator for the Student Sustainability Coalition, represented U-M as she shared words of encouragement and introduced Harris. The day prior, Rosas received an email inviting her to make the introductory remarks. 

“It was a bonding experience to help her with the remarks she wrote, and so humbling to be a part of that experience with her,” said Jackson, a co-president of the Student Sustainability Coalition. “She did such a great job on stage, and it was so emotional to hear Vice President Harris’s kind words about Stephanie’s work ethic and leadership.” 

It was the second time in a handful of months that these U-M students joined Harris for a climate conversation. 

In January 2023, Harris visited U-M as part of a White House effort to promote its climate initiatives, marking her first visit to U-M and the first time a sitting vice president has spoken on campus since 1978. The U-M students who traveled to Washington, D.C., to mark Earth Day 2023 were also invited to Harris’s January talk. Jackson opened that program with a call for action to the campus community.

A passion that unites 

Collectively, the seven U-M students represent various sustainability-centered or -adjacent majors, schools and colleges, and intersectional interests. What unites them, aside from the vice president’s invitation, is a passion for enacting sustainable change, both at U-M and beyond.

Five University of Michigan students in Washington, DC holding up bags they received at an event for sustainability with Vice President Harris.
Left to right: Stephanie Rosas, Andrew van Baal, Jasmine Paulk, Chase Dautrich and Lashaun Jackson

Five students work with Student Life Sustainability in varying capacities, and two are involved with environmental efforts through U-M’s Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. Many make time for multiple programs and activities, choosing not to limit their interests or potential impact. 

“My passion for this work is relentless, so much so that I have intentionally made time to be present in it and do it to the best of my ability,” said van Baal, who joined the Student Sustainability Coalition about a year ago as a freshman.

Dautrich shared a similar sentiment, noting that giving his time to organizations working in spaces like sustainability and social justice energizes him.

“Working in student orgs is where I get the most energy at school,” said Chase Dautrich, a Program in the Environment senior pursuing a minor in Business.

“I can’t imagine learning about concepts of sustainability in class and then doing nothing to apply them in the world around me.” 

Chase Dautrich

Dautrich has found countless opportunities to get involved on campus: Mostly with the U-M Sustainable Food Program (UMSFP) and, previously, the Food Recovery Network. Then there’s his involvement in the Erb Institute Undergraduate Fellows, the Graham Scholars Program, Management as a Calling program offered through the Ross School of Business, and facilitating a biology study group for the Science Learning Center.

The Earth Day event provided Jackson, van Baal, Dautrich and others an opportunity to apply the leadership and interpersonal skills learned on campus in settings outside the university.   

“While I understood why practices such as collaboration and open mindedness were important before coming to U-M, I didn’t practice them in real time,” said Dautrich. “Over my years in the U-M Sustainable Food Program, I came to see the intersections between collaboration and open mindedness with values like empathy, kindness, sincerity and humility.”

A movement with momentum

“It’s important that sustainability education extends beyond the classroom and that students have the opportunity to co-create the future that they want to live in. When they leave here, they have built the skills to be change agents for a better world,” said Alex Bryan, director of Student Life Sustainability.

“We’re proud of the work our students do, and we’re proud to support those experiences.”

Alex Bryan, director of Student Life Sustainability

Student Life covered the trip costs for the five students engaged in the division’s sustainability efforts, ensuring access to the opportunity. 

Sustainability and environmental opportunities available to U-M students are likely to expand as the university continues to make progress toward its climate action goals.

U-M is committed to achieving carbon neutrality across the Flint, Dearborn and Ann Arbor campuses, covering Michigan Medicine and Athletics. The university will procure 100% of its purchased electricity from renewable sources by 2025 and will eliminate 100% of greenhouse gas emissions from direct, campus sources by 2040. Among other efforts, U-M is planning extensive geothermal exchange heating and cooling projects, enacting new maximum building emissions targets, identifying new energy conservation projects to be financed via a shared revolving energy fund, and pursuing 25 MW in on-campus solar across all campuses, in coordination with parallel efforts from the city of Ann Arbor.

Interested students and community members can learn more at planetblue.umich.edu/carbonneutrality.

“With the new (U-M) administration, we are optimistic about the progress we can make in terms of how sustainability is integrated into our built environment, academics, and culture on all three campuses,” said Jackson.

Students have numerous ways to get involved in sustainability efforts across campus and make their voices heard, including more than 100 student organizations focusing on sustainability or the environment. 

Three University of Michigan students outside of the White House.
Left to right: Lashaun Jackson, Andrew van Baal and Stephanie Rosas

In Student Life, students can choose from a range of co-curricular programs, academic partnerships and internships, including the U-M Sustainable Food Program, Planet Blue Student Leaders, the Student Sustainability Coalition, and Sustainability Cultural Organizers. Graduating students can apply for an Excellence in Sustainability Graduation Cord.  

Jackson is co-president of the Student Sustainability Coalition, a group facilitated by Student Life, the Graham Sustainability Institute and other university partners that seeks to connect students and student groups to catalyze university sustainability efforts. 

A newer outgrowth of Student Life’s sustainability work is the Sustainability Cultural Organizing program, which leverages the power of the arts to envision a more just, equitable, and sustainable world. 

“I knew the work was right up my alley when I first saw the job posting,” said Jasmine Paulk, a sophomore studying architecture and food and the environment who is among the program’s first sustainability cultural organizers. “I get to work at the intersection of my interests in social justice, sustainability, and the arts, and build community on this campus.” 

Paulk has “met some wonderful people under the Student Life Sustainability umbrella” through the cross-campus collaborations. In Washington, D.C., Paulk’s connections multiplied as the U-M students and others emerged in environmental and sustainability work converged.

“I was definitely surprised to see so many other young people—students, activists, professionals—in this space,” said Paulk of her time at the vice president’s residence. “It was inspiring to see these demographics and the way that professionals with many more years of experience interacted with youth.” 

“We are the future of this movement.”