Lasting Sparks: Makena Kristen on motivating young people to take action for sustainability

As one of Canada’s top educational institutions with a student body of nearly 40,000 students, it’s no surprise that a crucial aspect of McGill’s sustainability network is youth-focused.

One of the agents of change within Roddick Gates is undergraduate student Makena Kristen. Raised in Vancouver, Kristen decided to turn her love of the outdoors into action related to sustainability. During her degree in International Development and Urban Studies, she was involved in several extracurricular programs related to sustainability, including the Governance Council of the Sustainable Projects Fund (SPF), the McGill Energy Association and the Center McGill Energy Conversion and Storage Innovation Center.

During a meeting with the Office of Sustainability, Kristen shares what it takes to join student activism and her experience on campus.

Tell us about your background and what motivated you to get so involved in sustainability on campus.

Makena Kristen

I have always had a very strong passion for the environment and sustainability. I want to grow up in British Columbia, it’s hard not to. Then, when I started to learn more about the challenges facing the environment, I realized that there weren’t enough substantial changes to solve such a big problem. It all depends on the health of our climate, so it was hard to understand why we weren’t doing more.

sometimes there [has to be] a leap between just being a student and choosing to get involved, and the motivation for that leap is different for everyone. When the pandemic hit, I felt stuck inside, and had wanted to get involved for a while, but it pushed me to do something about my concern for the environment.

The first big thing I jumped into was the McGill Energy Association, which at the time focused on oil and gas and primarily targeted engineering students. I became president and then started changing the mandate from oil and gas to global energy transition. Today, the club aims to encourage the global community’s transition from reliance on fossil fuels to renewable energy.

What do you like about being a student activist? How does this challenge you?

There are a lot of things I like about being a student activist. Working with young people on something you’re passionate about really makes you grow as a person. I do it because I love being part of the change I hope to see, but I think people also really underestimate the tangible job skills you get from doing these things. You learn to solve problems and work in a team. And each of these new skills can prepare you for more opportunities that were originally not your skills.

A major challenge I’ve faced is that when a lot of people think of the environment, they think of very rigid environmental science, but it’s so much more than that. The economic, cultural and political climate has such an impact, which means that everyone has the opportunity to get involved.

When people from different interests and disciplines come together, you get so many different perspectives to come up with stronger solutions that will benefit more people.

How has your participation on the SPF Governing Council influenced your view of campus sustainability? What have you learned from the experience so far?

Being part of this Council, which is not just student-run, has really reconfirmed how important interdisciplinary sustainability is to me.

It was amazing to see, but I think there’s a lot of room for growth. The SPF has a million dollars each year. Not every five or ten years, every year. It’s the largest fund of its kind in Canada for post-secondary institutions and it really empowers students to drive change. I personally think that it is not used enough at the moment.

If you really want to see lasting change on campus, you have the capacity and the resources to do so. I really encourage students to come forward and act on your ideas.

Why do you think it is important for students to get involved in sustainability issues?

I always wanted to grow up in a place with good air quality and fair social government. Who wouldn’t? The part that makes youth different from [older generations] when it comes to sustainability, what we do now has an impact on our future.

Students are also the most motivated people I have ever met. We are always trying to find our place in the world, and one of the easiest ways to do that is to work for the future you want to see. Working in student activism creates a very large community of other sustainability enthusiasts. It makes such a big school feel a bit smaller with these communities forming around the campus.

If you had one message to share with incoming students about getting involved in sustainable development, what would it be?

Don’t underestimate yourself and the change you can make. I know it may seem overwhelming, but just start slow and the rest will come.

There can be a lot of fear, especially among younger students who look at all these older, more accomplished students and feel out of place. But your passion is more important than your previous experience. People aren’t just looking for someone who’s good on paper, this movement needs people who really care and are willing to step up and make change.

A big part of life is just trying, and I think a lot of people will be surprised at how much they can achieve and how much they can do just by taking that first step. It’s scary – very scary – but once you do it, it will get easier and easier each time. Then one day, you may look back and think, “Wow! I never thought I would be here.

If you want to find your community, put yourself forward and stay true to your values. The rest will come.

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