This year the environmental studies program received a three-year, $500,000 grant from the HSBC in the Community (USA) Inc. Foundation, the philanthropic arm of HSBC Bank. Upon hearing the news, Susan Allen-Gil, coordinator of environmental studies, remembers, “We were pretty blown away because of the amount of money and freedom to include and create what we wanted.” With this funding, they have established scholarships for five incoming freshmen and supported a number of exemplary environmental or sustainable projects, including one to begin a student-run organic garden on campus and another to study whether converting the dining hall’s waste oil into biodiesel fuel is viable. Further, they now have the means to fund student internships, and there is quite a range—from working on international environmental conservation in New Zealand to studying land trust conservation, permaculture, and sustainable living in Ithaca. “One of the neat things about these projects is how diverse they are. It gives us the opportunity to reward and recognize those who do good work. Sometimes just giving students money and independence to study what they want can make a big difference,” says Allen-Gil.
This opportunity is not just for environmental studies majors and minors. Aside from the scholarships, these fellowships and grants are open to any student at the College, as long as the project or internship somehow deepens the student’s understanding of environmental issues or sustainability. The HSBC grant has enabled the environmental studies program to support a wide variety of projects, from outreach to local communities to internships with research organizations. One example of an outreach project is Rose Zonetti’s project to develop a garden at Ithaca’s South Side Community Center. Zonetti, a senior writing major, coordinated and recruited volunteers from the neighborhood, Ithaca College, Sustainable Tompkins, and the Cornell Cooperative Extension. Her hope was that the garden would give the children of the neighborhood a chance to connect with nature and to learn about it in a more hands-on way. According to the environmental studies program’s report on the 2009 Commit-to-Change Awards, “The creation of this garden is beginning to foster intergenerational community bonding and could even revive a community center that once served as a neighborhood haven for local youth.”
Much farther from home, biology major Zach Cava ’09 is spending his summer in San Diego. He is interning with Rulon Clark, a professor from San Diego State, to study the predator-prey interactions between ground squirrels and rattlesnakes. “It’s really exciting work, not only because it involves rattlesnakes, which is awesome, but also because Rulon is integrating technology with field research in ways that haven’t been practiced extensively.” It has been a great opportunity for Cava to learn in a truly hands-on way—he is handling snakes, observing their behavior, and learning how to use technology (such as surveillance cameras) to drive the research forward. Cava says, “I am grateful to be a part of this process. I’ve only been here two weeks now and already I have acquired skills and knowledge that will be invaluable in the future.”
HSBC’s generosity has also enabled the environmental studies program to give its students a more global perspective by sending a number of them to a U.N. convention in Poland. These students heard firsthand accounts from people who are already impacted by environmental changes, and they also witnessed how actual negotiations take place. Next year a group of students will be going to climate change talks in Copenhagen. “We’re hoping that [these students] come back and broadcast what they’re doing, what they’re learning, and why it matters.” And indeed it does matter. This grant has raised the profile of the environmental studies program, as well as the profile of the school overall. It has given students new opportunities to deepen their educational experience and concrete ways to make a difference in the world right now. As Allen-Gil says, “Receiving this funding puts Ithaca in a very competitive position. We stood out among colleges of our type, and this grant has given students hope and even more of a sense of possibility. We are very proud of the really good work they’re doing.”