Last spring, Vermont Academy’s Director of Place-Based Learning and Environmental Studies, Ms. Christine Armiger was invited by Putney Pre-College Programs to help direct their inaugural youth summer program on climate and public health. The program was created in partnership with the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. After accepting this position, Christine immediately knew this would present a wonderful opportunity for Vermont Academy students.
“Taking part in this program would give our students access to college professors and internationally renowned speakers,” Ms. Armiger explained. “And it would give them time and space to think about critical issues and how they could bring what they learned back to their school and community.”
The Harvard Chan C-CHANGE Youth Summits on Climate Change and Public Health took place this past July. Three Vermont Academy students attended. Abby Hawkins ‘23 attended the public health summit. Ian Robinson ’22 and Eliza Asante ’22 attended the climate change summit. They were brought together with motivated and like-minded young people to learn from and be inspired by community leaders, scientists, healthcare providers, and each other. Each student spent a week in Boston immersed in a college environment. They lived in the Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s newest high-rise dormitory (“The Treehouse”) and spent their days in class at the Wentworth Institute of Technology. They also had time to visit some of Boston’s favorite museums and attractions.
The impressive list of speakers included:
Dr. Francesca Dominici, PhD, Co-Director of the Harvard Data Science Initiative and Clarence James Gamble Professor of Biostatistics, Population and Data Science at Harvard Chan School
Dr. Howard Koh, MD, MPH, Former Assistant Secretary for Health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Professor of Public Health Leadership at the Harvard Chan School and Harvard Kennedy School
Nadia Nazar, Founder and Co-Executive Director of Zero Hour
Dr. Renee Salas, MD, MPH, MS, Emergency Medicine Physician and Yerby Fellow at Harvard Chan C-CHANGE
Dr. Michelle Williams, SM, ScD, Dean of Faculty at the Harvard Chan School
Governor Peter Shumlin, 81st Governor of Vermont and Menschel Senior Leadership Fellow at the Harvard Chan School
Governor Shumlin said he was “excited to be a part of this innovative program” as it would “help give students the tools to tackle both the biggest challenges and the biggest opportunities of any generation born to this Earth so far. Students will return to their home communities after the summit with practical, actionable ideas for making real change, as well as a newfound network of engaged peers and leaders.”
The youth summits also included youth speakers like Jerome Foster, a 19-year-old climate change activist and voting rights advocate. He is the youngest member serving on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council within the Biden administration. Ms. Armiger said his message to the students came across loud and clear. “He told the students, ‘Don’t wait until you’re in college or grown up to make policy change – you can make policy change at this age.’”
The youth summits allowed students from across the country to dive into issues regarding health, climate, energy, transportation, agriculture, pandemics, public policy, and air and water quality. Each student chose an action focus related to their interests, strengths, and passions and developed a capstone project focused on transforming their ideas into action.
Abby Hawkins ‘23 attended the Public Health Summit. Her capstone focused on the quality of the education available in her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Only 26% of the residents of Memphis have a bachelor’s degree, whereas 66% of the residents in neighboring Germantown have graduated from college, even though both communities have high school graduation rates over 86%.
“This is an equity issue,” Abby explained. “It is obvious that one school needs more support than the other. My middle school, Soulsville, had a great curriculum. The teachers made learning fun, the school would take us on celebratory trips when we did something well, and many things like that. But learning could be hard, when you did not have enough computers, no stable internet, gas leaks every other week, outdated books, and lockdowns almost every month due to its surrounding community.”
Abby left Soulsville in 2019 for her first high school in suburban Memphis, called Crosstown High. “In that school, we had more resources than you could imagine,” she said. “3D printers, IPads, and computers for all. We had a marvelous library filled with books to study, and we got new books every week. I know that because I worked in the school library.”
Abby’s call to action is to create a community program to promote fundraising for the lower funded schools. “This can mean getting money for books, better computers, and schoolwide library cards for the local library,” she explained. “We can also build some learning centers for the school, like a computer lab, or a science place. We can also raise money to renovate the schools. We can also use those empty and closed-down schools to turn into community resources.”
Eliza Asante ’22 and Ian Robinson ’22 attended the climate change summit. Eliza chose to focus on media to begin writing an article that she hopes to publish. “Although we are all kids and it seems like we can’t do much,” she explains, “we are the future and I feel like we need to learn more about climate change in schools because nobody knows how much climate change is really affecting all of us.”
Ian focused his work on examining how Vermont Academy heats its buildings. He said, “it’s important to understand more about how climate change is a huge issue that needs more awareness around the world -- because one day it will be my problem to worry about.”