How do you make Indiana a more sustainable place to live? If you’re one of IU’s McKinney Climate Fellows, you start locally.
A municipal composting site in Zionsville.
A climate action program for Richmond.
A tree planting plan for Terre Haute.
Across Indiana, communities are benefiting from the assistance and expertise of McKinney Climate Fellows( MCF): highly skilled IU undergraduate and graduate students with a passion for sustainability. As part of the IU Environmental Resilience Institute’s McKinney Midwest Climate Project, the MCF program connects students with Indiana organizations. Together, they develop real-world solutions that address the effects of climate change.
The climate challenges facing communities are often nuanced, as Haley Weiland, a McKinney Fellow and IU Northwest student in the class of 2025, can attest. She spent the summer after her freshman year working with the Shirley Heinze Land Trust (SHLT), a Valparaiso, Indiana, nonprofit that aims to preserve the natural landscape of Northwest Indiana.
“My main goal was to quantify how the SHLT contributes to mitigating climate change,” Weiland said. “I utilized a computer program that produced reports on the environmental benefits and values of [the SHLT’s] forested area based on local meteorological data. I learned a lot through researching and trial and error.”
To date, more than 200 fellows have contributed more than 79,000 hours to serving communities throughout the state. The impact is four-fold: Beyond benefiting the environment, organizations, and students, the MCF program has also developed an in-state workforce. Seventy percent of fellows choose to live and work in Indiana after completing the program.
“The practice of talking to community members and learning what was important to them and how this work connected their values and morals with climate action was a game changer for me.” – Ava Hartman, BA’23
That’s welcome news for the state’s businesses, government agencies, and nonprofits. According to a July 2022 report by WorkingNation, green jobs in the Hoosier State are projected to increase by more than 29 percent over the next five years—nearly five times the national average.
The MCF program was established through a grant from the McKinney Family Foundation. Notably, the fellowship is available to students from every IU campus. That geographic diversity is invaluable for the students, as building relationships with community residents is a pivotal part of the experience.
“One of the big things that the program focused on was equity and community outreach in government work and creating a bridge of trust,” said Ava Hartman, BA’23. “The practice of talking to community members and learning what was important to them and how this work connected their values and morals with climate action was a game changer for me.”
Hartman is the fellow who worked on the aforementioned Terre Haute project, learning directly about urban forestry and the role of natural infrastructure in fighting climate change. But ask any MCF alum and you’ll hear similar sentiments.
“The impact of this work really came through when I had a local woman tell me she felt empowered to talk about climate change,” said class of 2023 alumna Barbara Dale of her climate action work in South Bend.
The communities—and the people who call them home—are surely just as grateful. If the momentum of the MCF program is any indication, residents can take comfort that their communities are better prepared for future environmental challenges thanks to help from climate-conscious IU students.
You can support McKinney Climate Fellows and their important work making Indiana a cleaner, healthier place to live. Make a gift to the McKinney Climate Fellows Scholarship fund or contact Abby Henkel Roman, assistant director of advancement for the Environmental Resilience Institute, at 812-855-2469 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally published in the 2023 issue of Imagine magazine. Thank you to Gillian Paxton and Cody Smith of the Environmental Resilience Institute at Indiana University and the IU Northwest news team for original reporting that contributed to this story.