At the Thompson Earth Systems Institute (TESI), communication and education form the bedrock of the Institute’s mission to inspire Floridians to be effective stewards of our planet. Recognizing that leaders from all disciplines are needed to tackle the immense challenge of protecting the Earth for current and future generations, TESI approached the Henry David Thoreau Foundation with the idea of launching a new program to train University of Florida undergraduates to become the same kinds of communicators and educators that TESI counts among its own ranks. Launching in the fall of 2021, the TESI Environmental Leaders Fellowship provides undergraduate students the opportunity to gain formational experience in environmental research, education and outreach, and civic engagement.
“We are living in a time of environmental crisis and it’s all hands on deck,” explains Sadie Mills, one of the program’s leaders. For this reason, the Fellowship is not confined to students majoring in environmental fields, but instead brings together undergraduate students from academic disciplines across the University of Florida. TESI’s program will provide these students with the knowledge, skills, confidence, and network to advocate for the planet as they take on leadership roles in a wide range of careers, both within and beyond traditional environmental disciplines.
Fellows will attend seminars featuring environmental experts, receive mentoring from professionals in environmental fields, network with peers, and take part in a Fellow-designed, multi-day field experience focused on environmental challenges across Florida. Putting knowledge into practice, Fellows will culminate their experience by working with a community organization on a project that contributes to research, education, or civic engagement on a salient environmental issue.
Launching as the COVID-19 pandemic begins to recede in the U.S., Mills sees a particular poignancy in the program’s core goal of creating a network of relationships among students, community members, and scientists. “This past year was particularly challenging for undergraduate students, as the pandemic made it tough to connect socially and academically. As science-backed vaccines give us hope for a return to in-person activities, we are beyond excited to foster a positive and nurturing environment for students to reconnect with their peers and rebuild a passion for their college experience and how it can prepare them for their future career.”
Mills and her colleagues plan to use the outcomes of this pilot project to generate additional support that allows them to continue and even expand the program. “Our hope is that five or ten years down the line we will have built a large network of leaders in diverse fields that fosters collaboration and mutual support for the benefit of Florida’s environment and beyond.”
Thompson Earth Systems Institute at the Florida Museum