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College Conservation – Opportunities for Leadership

Student-led conservation organizations can be impactful for the environment and in shaping young leaders. Former Conservation Action intern and college student Juliet Cairney explains how she has taken a leadership role in a conservation organization at her university, the skills that she and her peers have developed and how the projects they’ve worked on have benefitted the community and the planet at large.

The pink allium flower forms tall, thin stalks topped with round, fragrant clusters of pink flowers-- popular with Shedd's bees!

At the University of Chicago, where I just began my second year, I'm on the board of Phoenix Farms, the University’s urban farming and beekeeping club. The club aims to educate the student body and the surrounding community on urban gardening and beekeeping practices and the importance of plants and pollinators in ecosystems. As a student-led group, we approach these goals in a way that makes sense for fellow students and enables them to contribute as much as possible, showcasing the unique potential and importance of student-led groups in the conservation and environmental space.

For example, the club’s projects support students’ workloads and can foster a deeper love and appreciation for the natural world. Phoenix Farms’s weekly club meetings are centered around hands-on activities such as starting seedlings, maintaining gardens and harvesting and selling honey, all of which are designed to give students a break from UChicago’s intense academic rigor.

In this laid-back space, students can unwind, and in the process, let their natural curiosity flourish. Students can learn more about the ways that humans impact the green spaces around us and begin to develop a higher level of environmental awareness and a genuine interest in sustainability, all while avoiding burnout.

Hardy fall cabbages are surrounded by a blanket of colorful autumn leaves in Shedd's gardens.
A cluster of soft green leaves.

Furthermore, the short-term projects at each club meeting can lead to participation in long-term projects that can exponentially benefit the community. At one of my first meetings, I left with a small jar of honey that we’d harvested that day. Months later, I’m involved in a years-long effort to establish a micro-food forest in the Woodlawn community to support local churches’ food closets, overcome financial barriers to fresh produce and connect the community to urban farming practices.

With whatever time they commit, students can apply what they’re learning in the classroom and through short-term extracurricular projects to attainable, positive change for our blue planet. I believe that these efforts are helping us to restore hope among my generation, and among others in the communities that we’re impacting, that the environment is worth saving. Caring for the environment should be as natural as planting a seed in the ground and watching it sprout.

Four teens in windbreakers and hoodies stand on a great lakes beach in the bright afternoon sun, the blue lake visible behind them as they hold up large blue plastic bags of trash collected from the beach.

Finally, my favorite part of Phoenix Farms is its incredibly fun, welcoming social environment. The meetings are both stimulating and relaxing, from student lectures sharing the latest research and developments in conservation to lots of loosely structured social time during hands-on tasks. It’s a space that truly caters to UChicago’s diverse student body. Anyone, regardless of their background or knowledge about conservation and sustainability topics, can start anytime.

The aim of the club is ultimately to foster a sense of connection to the earth, to life on earth and to each other, and this is best done by emphasizing the joy in taking care of green spaces alongside the other people who share that green space. Engaging with conservation is framed as fun and has room for everyone.

Conservation is a broad movement that touches every aspect of life on this planet, but the scale of the environmental issues we face can make the problems seem insurmountable, and the organizations formed to address these issues can often seem just as inaccessible. That’s what makes groups like Phoenix Farms so special — these groups utilize students’ understanding of their peers to facilitate a love of conservation in a way that sticks. Student-led groups make conservation accessible to other students and the communities they impact, helping to make sure that the next generation is equipped with knowledge, awareness and care for the world that we live in, and ensuring that this translates into hope for the future of our planet.

- Juliet Cairney,Conservation Action Intern