Our Stories

Sustaining the Future: Student Lands Udall Scholarship

Kirsten Nelsen '08 didn't set out to get involved with sustainability efforts at Willamette University. She wasn't even planning to be an environmental science major when she arrived. But on a campus where the idea of sustainability -- leaving the land in better shape than when it was found -- is an integral part of university life, Nelsen couldn't help but take part as a member of Willamette's Sustainability Council.

"I wanted to be involved, but I didn't go seek it out. It found me," she says. "And now I go seek things out."

Nelsen, known to her friends at Kiry, now is focusing her studies on environmental issues. This spring, she received a $5,000 national award that will help her with that goal: the Udall Scholarship, for students seeking careers related to the environment. She is the ninth Willamette student to win this award.

Nelsen grew up around nature, living on her parents' five-acre Christmas tree farm in Hillsboro, Ore., where her father hand-chose the family's tree each year and specially pruned it to prepare for the next holiday. But beyond that, she wasn't very familiar with environmental issues until coming to Willamette and taking a class in the subject.

Now, she has strong views on the direction of the environmental movement. She worries that it has a stereotype of not being part of "normal" America. "I think the environmental movement has taken a wrong turn somewhere, because it doesn't have attention anymore."

Nelsen plans to use her scholarship to study in Denmark in the fall, examining what that country is doing in the area of "green" businesses. "They're really advanced with all kinds of legislation on sustainability. All the Scandinavian countries are good at that."

She joined Willamette's Sustainability Council last year. Her main passion is convincing businesses to adopt sustainability practices because, as she says, "it's the only way for the market economy to work." Businesses think it's cheaper and easier to ignore sustainability, and although the technology is there to help them, they find it inconvenient, Nelsen says.

"I think if we're going to preserve our Earth by any means, we need to focus on the economy," she says. "People hear that. People hear money more than sentimental arguments."