We're raising a million!

Applicant Information

Maria Rosales
University of Tennessee at Knoxville
Senior

Essay

When I was 12 years old, I moved from Nicaragua to Tennessee. My first memories of the US include seeing snow for the first time and my mom organizing a protest. My mom’s event made it to the front page of our small local newspaper, and it opened my eyes to the value of civic engagement. Fast-forward 10 years later, I had watched several documentaries on climate change and knew the importance of reducing our carbon emissions. I was a sophomore at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville majoring in environmental studies, but the reality of environmental degradation seemed daunting. I began to volunteer with Southern Energy Network and found myself in another protest at the EPA hearings to regulate coal ash as toxic waste. Two years earlier, Kingston, a town 30 minutes outside of the Knoxville, had the biggest coal ash spill in the history of this country. The need to move towards clean energy became more real and more urgent than ever, and the first place to start was in my campus.

After the hearings, I worked with my school's sustainability office to complete the Sustainability, Tracking, Assessment, & Rating System (STARS). Although it was only for a semester, working on STARS gave me two tools: I saw places where the university could move forward and I learned the structure of our university system. With these two pieces of information, my mind exploded with ideas and knowledge of who could make it happen. The first place that I was able to get involved was through our student environmental initiatives fee (aka green fee committee). Through a student-led campaign, the university adopted a green fee in 2006, but it had never had any guidelines or way of tracking what was being spent. I worked on a charter for our student green fee and worked with other students to make sure the university kept it's commitment to green power. Not many 23 year olds have the chance to talk about half a million dollars with university administrators which is why I showed up to every meeting. This was such an empowering opportunity, that my best tactic became bringing more student leaders with me. Everytime there was a meeting, I would call as many students as I could sometimes within a times notice to come and have their voices heard. It was important that the room was full of students because, after all, it was our money. I'm really proud of the student involvement in this committee. Students made sure that they had a clear, unifying message: we need more clean energy. This year alone, we decided to increase our green power commitment from 3% to 32% to be announced in the next month. This is huge commitment for our university and will hopefully set an example to other schools in the Southeast. Because of our investment, the University has gotten multiple awards from Tennessee Valley Authority and our utility. I always like to tell people that Tennessee students are putting their money where their mouth is. My university alone has become the largest purchaser of green power in our state. We are driving the clean energy economy in Tennessee.

Our work in Tennessee has had such a huge impact that I had the opportunity to do intensive research on it along with two other students, Nick Alderson and Jenica Nelson. Our research, The Student Green Fee movement in Tennessee: A successs story highlights all of the campuses that our state network has worked with to implement student green fees in our state. We were also able to show the impact that the green fee is having in our state, how much was being spent on things like energy efficiency, green power, waste management, water conservation, and every aspect of sustainability. To date, schools in Tennessee have collectively invested close to $12 million dollars in sustainability since the first green fee was implemented in 2006. Our research was presented at the 2012 Greening of the Campus at Ball State University, the Tennesseee Environmental Conference, and the 2012 Exhibition of Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievement at the University of Tennessee, Knoxvillle.

Although the green fee reform and green power commitment was a huge win, there was a lot of work to be done. Last year, I took as my next project to push the university to sign the Billion Dollar Green Challenge. This is a nationwide campaign where universities set up a revolving fund to collectively raise a billion dollars. I had a vision of something bigger than our green fee—a bigger commitment to energy efficiency and way to get a return on our investment. After talking to students and administrators, students decided that we needed to raise a million dollars towards energy efficiency! It was an ambitious goal, but a necessary step to moving away from fossil fuels, save money, and decrease our carbon emissions. With the help of other students, I moved forward with the plan by collecting petitions, talking to students, doing class visits, and recruiting more students. We talked to our Chancellor at every opportunity we had, organized a forum, met with key administrators, and I even asked the chancellor to sign the challenge on stage during graduation this past May. All of these efforts have begun to pay off, many administrators have supported our campaign and are helping us to move forward with the revolving fund. Now, we are in the beginning stages of identifying funding from the university, and we're also looking for potential projects.

The work that I was doing on campus helped me to connect to other campuses and larger community issues. I had the opportunity to organize our state network, Tennessee Alumni and Students for Sustainable Campuses. Each week, I set up and facilitated conference calls with students representing more than 10 different campuses across Tennessee. We brainstormed, shared stories, challenges, and next steps to move our schools towards 100% clean energy. I helped organize many conferences for student leaders and one for faculty and staff leaders in sustainability across Tennessee. This is the most rewarding part of being a student organizer-- to train the next generation of student leaders. I've trained close to 100 students on skills such as working with the media, meeting with administrators, action planning, anti-oppression, and other trainings. Because planning a protest or collecting petitions is not something we can learn in a classroom. Because of this kind of leadership development, now that I'm done with school there is a group of students who is ready to continue to work on the campaign to raise $1 Million towards energy efficiency. In short, I've organized myself out of my organizing position.

Being involved in campus sustainability made my college experience more than memorable. I'm thankful to my school for recognizing my work and presenting me with the 2012 Environmental Leadership Award and the 2012 Ryan Edwards Environmental Service award. I was also named one of the Top 20 Clean Energy Leaders by national organization, Focus the Nation and selected to be their ReCharge! Delegate. I also received the 2011 Environmental Studies Professional Promise award. Finally, I'm personally proud to be the first in my family with a Bachelor's degree and a newly US Citizen this year.