Students Excel in a New Climate Action Program
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Students Excel in a New Climate Action Program

John Hsu wasn’t sure if the climate action leadership development program he had designed would work. Then he met the high school students who signed up. Twenty-four highly motivated teens from around the world have exceeded expectations in the first round of the Climate Leaders Fellowship program, which is run free of charge with support from the Rustic Pathways Foundation and the Stanford Center for Deliberative Democracy.

During the climate action leadership development program, the students designed a project they thought would help their local community combat the effects of climate change. They then met online in sessions scheduled in October, November and December to get ideas and support, as they planned and implemented donation drives.

Hsu managed the program with a team of facilitators and advised the students based on his experience creating strategies for educational programs like Teach for America and working as a McKinsey consultant. He says the idea came out of brainstorming sessions designed to find ways to boost student leadership development during the school year.

“We know a lot of the students are very service oriented. They want to know how to give back,” Hsu said. “So we thought – What if they created their own donation campaign to impact their local community, while also building relationships with like-minded students around the globe?”

The end result was spectacular. The students have collected over 2000 pounds of food, $5000 in funds, and clothing and supplies from more than 100 donors. The donations benefited communities in several countries, including the United States, Canada, Japan and Thailand. In all, students in the program contributed a total of 500 hours of service.

Photo: Vanessa Glowczewski

Now another free fellowship program is in the works to continue the good work. It is set to launch on February 28.  The project focus will be recycling and composting. Service hours will count toward the President’s Volunteer Service Award, along with a new tiered reward system.

Julia Masuda is among the students who participated in the pilot program who saw first hand the benefits it had for herself, her school, and the local community. She worked on a fellowship project with a couple of other students who attend the Horizon Japan International School in Yokohama, Japan.

Their hope was to help residents who had been impacted by powerful typhoons by collecting funds for a Japanese disaster relief fund. As they were trying to figure out how to do this, they got lots of support from other students in the program.

“We were all working on different projects and yet we had a shared vision, which made the discussions flow a lot better,” Masuda said.

After much work, the students in Japan organized a weeklong event at their school that they called the Squall Games. The project included competitions, educational presentations, and a donation drive.

Getting from concept to completion required many readjustments as they followed the steps of the program.

Hear more about Julia Masuda’s project and how she overcame challenges.

How the Program Works

Hsu says students are given three major resources to get the ball rolling: a workbook, Zoom sessions and a Discord discussion board. The workbook lays out timelines, ideas and the four major steps in the program.

These steps are:

  • Identify your local need and form your team
  • Create your marketing and operations plan
  • Implement your plan and adjust as needed
  • Wrap up your project and look ahead

The projects students pitched included helping communities impacted by wildfires in Oregon, California, and Colorado, providing food for people affected by crop failures and the pandemic, and providing assistance to animals affected by pollution and rising global temperatures.

Pichamon Pongnonthachai from Bangkok, Thailand worked with the Mirror Foundation to collect food and funds for people who have suffered from the pandemic and monsoons. She says her favorite part of the program was listening to everyone else’s ideas on how they were addressing climate change in their communities.

“We started with the same idea but ended up with totally different projects. I found that fascinating,” Pongnonthachai said.

Julienne Adams from the U.S. state of Oregon ended up gathering donations of camping gear when she set out to help those affected by wildfires. She says when she asked what was most needed, gear was the response since it can provide temporary shelter when people lose their homes. After she had her idea, Adams received great support from other teens in the program. Adams says that was really wonderful since she lives in a “tiny town bubble.”

Julienne Adams gets a little help with her Climate Leaders Fellowship project.

“To talk with teens like me from all over the world was a great experience,” Adams said.

Once the students had their ideas, they had to reach out to the community and figure out how to get support. Masuda says they were taught discussion and consultancy protocols promoted by the Harvard Business Review.

To her, the biggest lesson from this was that “the way you present things matters.” This was important when her team had to pivot when they encountered problems.

Overcoming Roadblocks and Making an Impact

For Masuda and her team in Japan, they ran into scheduling challenges. Their school said they could not hold their event when they originally wanted because there was another fundraiser underway in November. On top of that, the prospect of asking families for money right after they completed a fundraising event seemed daunting.


“Our mentors and youth leaders advised us to focus on something else,” Masuda said. “It encouraged us to participate in a whole week-long game event.”

Photo: Julia Masuda

That change in focus enhanced the educational aspect of their project, increasing awareness about climate change. In the end they also brought in many donations as well.

In Oregon, Adams encountered different difficulties with her camping gear project. She says her lack of social media presence made it challenging to get the word out about her efforts. After learning more about marketing, Adams turned to her family and friends, along with the local fire department to assist in the effort.

“I wasn’t sure how much of a difference I could make, but seeing how people came together to help me shows there’s good in the community,” Adams said. “That’s definitely inspiring.”

For Pongnonthachai, time constraints were a concern both because of potential Covid shutdowns in Thailand and because she had to prepare for her national exams. She says the timelines in the program helped keep her on target, and if she grew frustrated, she focused on what she was trying to accomplish. Pongnonthacha says the biggest lesson for her was that small efforts can make a big difference.

“The most heartfelt actions don’t necessarily come from headline news or from fantastic global projects,” Pongnonthachai said. “They come from the simple need to help the people around us be happy and safe.”

For more information about the climate fellowship, please visit our program page.

About the Author

Mary Rogelstad

Content Writer

Mary is a Content Writer at Rustic Pathways. She has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. Prior to covering student travel, Mary created content for the music education company J.W. Pepper & Son. She also was a writer and producer at CNN International and a communications director for a social service agency and a K-12 private school.