By Ed Brennen
When the UMass system announced in May that it would become the first major public university to divest from direct fossil fuel holdings, senior biology major Sabrina Pedersen was elated — and stunned.
“It didn’t sink in until the next day just how big it was,” recalls Pedersen, who has dedicated herself to climate change, sustainability and environmental issues since first setting foot on the Lowell campus in 2012.
Four years later, as president of the Climate Change Coalition (formerly the Student Environmental Alliance), Pedersen played an active role in the historic decision to divest, which was unanimously approved by the Board of Directors of the UMass Foundation, a separate not-for-profit corporation that oversees the system’s $770 million endowment, on May 25 and endorsed by the UMass Board of Trustees on June 15.
“We must divest if we morally and ethically want to align ourselves with what our institutions are teaching,” says Pedersen, who is a student representative on the newly created 2020 Academic Sustainability Committee. “If we are all about sustainability, but we have investments in these fossil fuel industries, then that’s a problem that has to be solved.”
In late January, Pedersen (along with fellow UMass Lowell students Aaron Meneghini and Sean Cloran and alum Derek Pelotte ’12, ’14) attended a student-organized three-day divestment retreat in Western Massachusetts. There they joined students and alumni from the Amherst, Dartmouth and Boston campuses to brainstorm ways to educate students about the need to divest — and to encourage system leadership to redirect its $5 million investment in fossil fuels.
From banners and posters on the Howe Bridge and the walkway between Olney and Ball halls, to orange balloons covered with divestment messages scattered across campus, to an orange divestment pin on Rowdy at a hockey game, Pedersen and the Climate Change Coalition began a guerilla-style marketing campaign this spring designed to raise awareness and create dialogue.
“We handed out flyers that asked students to please email (UMass President) Marty Meehan saying they’re concerned about climate change,” Pedersen says. “The student response was amazing. A lot of people may think their opinion doesn’t matter, but it does.”
In announcing UMass’ divestment, Meehan praised the students’ involvement in the cause.
“Important societal change often begins on college campuses and it often begins with students,” Meehan said. “I’m proud of the students and the entire university community for putting UMass at the forefront of a vital movement.”
While the divestment movement began on the Amherst campus four years ago, Pedersen says this was the first year that students from the other campuses were invited into the discussion. She believes that was a major reason for its sudden success.
“I think it had a lot to do with the fact that all of us were speaking,” says Pedersen, a Burlington native whose concentration is in ecology, with minors in climate change and sustainability. “I don’t know what would have happened if it was just Amherst. I think the fact UMass Lowell students were speaking had a bigger push with President Meehan, since he’s from here. I think that was the most important part — that he was the one listening.”
Pedersen, who co-founded the Undergraduate Society of Science Students and is president of the Evolution & Ecology Club, sees a growing passion for environmental awareness on campus — and not just among students in the Kennedy College of Sciences.
“Whether you’re in engineering or biology, or in finance or economics or the arts, everyone has a say in the issue,” says Pedersen, who can see herself pursuing a career in environmental policy. “We need to bring together fields and have students be inspired when they first come here as freshmen, to think, ‘Yes, I can think about solving such a big problem.’
Pedersen felt that inspiration as a freshman, and four years later she helped inspire her school’s historic divestment vote.
“I’m really proud of everyone who put in energy to make it happen,” she says. “I’m just hoping that we can be a catalyst for other universities, that we can show them that, yes, it can be done.”