When he emailed his students’ article on eco-anxiety to one of the top U.S. environmentalists, University of Nebraska–Lincoln professor Joe Starita wasn’t necessarily expecting much. Bill McKibben — the environmentalist with 17 books and a Twitter following of nearly 370,000 — responded in minutes, saying he planned to feature it in a column for the New Yorker.
“It’s not typical to have an 18-year-old write something that seizes Bill McKibben’s attention and ends up in the New Yorker,” said Starita, who’s taught in UNL’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications for more than a decade. “That sent off a wave of public recognition dominoes that have never stopped.”
The article, co-authored by now-sophomore Aila Ganić and senior Kayla Vondracek, is one of 21 stories featured on Climate Change Nebraska, which has garnered attention from a global environmental group (ICLEI) headquartered in Bonn, Germany. Built by students from seven UNL colleges, the project educates audiences on climate change in Nebraska — and inspires them to take action — via long-form journalism, video montages, photography, surveys and more. Starita conceived of the site two years ago, when a bomb cyclone erupted in western Nebraska.
Guided by Starita and UNL professor Jennifer Sheppard, also from the College of Journalism and Mass Communications, students developed Climate Change Nebraska during an in-depth reporting class. While spring 2020 centered climate change problems, fall 2020 explored solutions. In between was a summer internship, during which students designed a website spotlighting content they’d created.
As they assembled their team, Starita said, the professors could afford to be picky; they received approximately 50 applications for around 18 slots. For the last half-century, most rigorous UNL journalism classes have been taken exclusively by journalism majors. But Starita opened this interdisciplinary project to all UNL undergraduates. Students range from classics and religious studies majors to students studying fisheries and wildlife.
“What [they] had in common was … a laser-like focus for climate change and how to do something about it,” Starita said.
One such student is Ganić, a political science major considering a career in environmental law. As she took her first-ever plunge into reporting, Ganić developed a sense of community with classmates not only learning the language of journalism but also grappling with objectivity; students couldn’t interview demonstrators in the morning and then protest come afternoon which, according to Starita, resulted in some students dropping out. But Ganić stuck with it. In addition to her eco-anxiety article, Ganić penned a piece on environmental racism.
“If you care about mental health, racial justice … [or] protecting our farmers, climate change is connected,” Ganić said. “It’s interconnected with everything.”
When Katie Couric saw Ganić’s work, she invited the student to write an op-ed about her experience fighting for climate justice during COVID-19 on her blog. And Starita said the New York Times plans to run another student’s piece on public health. Now, in spring 2021, students are transforming their work into a 140-page magazine for distribution to classrooms throughout Nebraska. Starita is confident that Climate Change Nebraska will continue its impact.
“We [researched] the bejesus out of [climate change],” Starita said, “and we hope these facts will inspire you to … make this world a better, safer, healthier place.”
To view the Climate Change Nebraska project, visit: climatechangenebraska.com.
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