Photo by Dirk Rohrbach.
During a Yukon River float trip in summer 2023, UAF climate scholars enjoy an evening fire at their campsite on a sandbar.
The boat moved slowly through the water, allowing for a well-deserved break in the day.
Rachel Heimke and her parents, David and Jill, were off the coast of California on a two-year sailing journey that would take them from Homer, Alaska, to Australia. The swell gently rocked the 37-foot vessel, and fresh, salty air surrounded them.
Just shy of her seventh birthday, Heimke daydreamed about what she and her parents might do to celebrate. In the distance, she noticed a humpback whale surface. They kept a lookout as the whale swam closer.
“It’s right there!” Heimke said. The whale surfaced again, this time right next to the boat, its exhale blow close enough to sprinkle spray down on them. As it dove under their boat, Heimke laughed with her parents, feeling like 7 would be a pretty good year.
Fast forward 10 years. Heimke found herself on the cusp of a new chapter — selecting a college that could nurture her desire to protect the ocean and address climate change. Her search led her to UAF and its groundbreaking Climate Scholars Program.
“I desperately didn’t want to go to UAF because this is where my dad went,” Heimke joked. “But UAF has a really good ocean sciences program, and they have the Climate Scholars Program, and that’s ultimately why I chose UAF. No other universities had a program like this, where I could combine my love of the ocean with my passion for climate change.”
Building on an idea
While Heimke was in high school contemplating her future, UAF Honors College Director Alex Hirsch was developing what would become the Climate Scholars Program at UAF.
The program responded to Honors College students who wanted to not only earn a degree but also contribute to a better future.
“Of all the challenges facing humanity and the world, I think rapid environmental change is the challenge that most concerns today’s students,” Hirsch said.
As America’s Arctic University, UAF is well-known for its climate research, but Hirsch felt there was a lack of focus on the topic at the undergraduate level. Hirsch, a political science professor and UAF’s associate vice chancellor for student experience, believed he could help build a program to coordinate that effort across disciplines.
“It was exciting to establish a program here that engages students in a way that provides them not only with information but also with a set of unique experiences,” Hirsch said.
The program has attracted students from around the country. There are now nearly 300 scholars earning degrees from physics to poetry while focusing on climate resilience and adaptation.
The UAF Climate Scholars Program is the first of its kind in the nation. It connects undergraduate students across disciplines and provides opportunities for experiential learning. Bringing together arts, humanities and science — with the chance to work alongside climate experts — empowers students to take something that feels big and overwhelming and make positive change.
“What binds all these students together is their common interest in rapid environmental change, climate resilience and climate adaptation,” Hirsch said. “Our climate scholars are keenly aware of the transgenerational responsibility that they’ve unfairly been burdened with and are very anxious to not just learn about the drivers of climate change but to do something about it. And what we try to do is empower students to both witness and make positive change through experiential learning intensives.”
Learning by experience
In summer 2023, 15 climate scholars canoed the Yukon River from Eagle to Circle with Bathsheba Demuth. Her award-winning 2019 book, “Floating Coasts,” is an environmental history of the Bering Strait.
The Brown University history professor, who as a young woman lived for three years in Old Crow, Canada, was inspired by the model at UAF. She wanted to be part of the experience.
On the trip, Demuth shared history with the students and talked with people along the river, some of whom have thousands of years of ancestry in the region. She acknowledged their wisdom, accumulated through generations, about how the land has changed. The group explored food security and sovereignty issues, such as how poor salmon runs in recent years have eliminated an important local source of food.
“It’s one thing to read about that, or to have someone come and give a presentation about that in your classroom at UAF,” Hirsch said. “But to actually go with someone who has this kind of expertise, who is now writing a book about the Yukon River, and then to meet the people who are impacted by it — it’s just different.”
Other hands-on experiences have included NASA’s eclipse-tracking balloon project, studies at the Bonanza Creek Long-Term Ecological Research site, and a community-based listening and healing arts project involving the renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Heimke, now a senior fisheries and marine sciences major, said that learning through experiences has helped make her education at UAF positive and rewarding.
In January, she traveled to Washington, D.C., for a weeklong trip and met with government agency personnel and policymakers, including U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.
“I have a picture of me standing quite awkwardly next to him in awe,” Heimke said.
Heimke found herself inspired by the people she met who work in areas of education, communication and policy.
“I came away thinking that while science is necessary and needed, its impact is limited without communication,” she said. “I want to create change by communicating science — to both the public and policymakers. I've encountered a lot of need for it in my degree, and I'm excited to pursue that career path.”
Holding onto passion
In a recent Climate Scholars Program advisory council meeting, Hirsch and Linda Schandelmeier ’71, a UAF alum, advisory member and donor, discussed the crucial skills the program inspires in students — ranging from data analytics to environmental ethics. Schandelmeier pinpointed an often-overlooked yet essential trait: passion.
“Linda explained that passion is actually a skill — which I found really interesting,” Hirsch said, “because of course all of our students are deeply passionate, and you can see Rachel’s passion when she speaks about what she loves and cares about, and all of our students have that passion in their hearts. They’re driven by it and it’s beautiful and it’s what makes our program work. It’s the driver of everything.”
And, Hirsch added, passion can be learned.
“It’s a skill to know how to be informed by your passion and how to hold onto it,” Hirsch said. “Students feel hopeful, but they don’t know what to do with their hope. What can one little person do? This is a global problem. And we try through our program to make it personal and make it feel like something that you can engage with at a local level and start where you are. I think it’s something that is effective for students in terms of managing their climate anxiety and sometimes their climate grief.”
Hirsch said the Climate Scholars Program emphasizes the significance of effective communication in addressing climate issues.
As a student in the program, Heimke said learning these skills can help transcend political polarization and lead to understanding and positive outcomes.
“You want to treat people like they’re human and find out what’s most important to them,” she said. “Ask them questions and then bring climate into that. Because there’s a very good chance that what’s near and dear to their heart is being affected by climate change in some way.”
Investing in the future
The success of the Climate Scholars Program is a testament to the commitment of its students and supporters.
Donors like Schandelmeier and her husband, John Davies ’70, ’75, have recognized the importance of addressing climate change and have invested in scholarships for the program. Their generosity enables students like Heimke to pursue their passion and make a difference.
“I believe that the incredible students in this program will become leaders in developing innovative solutions to address climate change,” Schandelmeier said. “They are motivated and driven to create the change our world needs right now. I feel like I am doing a small part to address the climate crisis and am grateful that we have teachers and students who are doing real work to that end.”
Davies said he and Schandelmeier feel energized and grateful for students who are enthusiastically motivated to address climate warming problems and find kindred spirits.
“We are excited to be able to help support students who are also focused on a wide range of climate issues, including food security, because we see these students as future game-changers in addressing this existential threat to our world,” he said.
Davies hopes that as more people are aware of the program, they will add their support. “It feels good to be able to give back to a school that has given so much to us,” he said.
Heimke said she has received an honors scholarship every year at UAF.
“There are no words to describe how much that helps,” she said. “Just being able to pay for college is difficult. I was able to do a study away program this summer that I paid out of my own pocket for, so scholarships have been really, really helpful.”
Additionally, funding from the Climate Scholars Program allowed her to attend the Arctic Encounters symposium in Anchorage in March, where she met with leaders in Arctic science and policy, including Alaska’s U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
“I never would have been able to attend that symposium had I not been given support through this program. So that was really incredible,” she said.
Hirsch gets emotional when he thinks about the generosity of donors like Schandelmeier and Davies. “It’s awe-inspiring. Gratitude is not the right word — it’s like shock that what we’re doing is inspiring people who care so much about students to give back in this way. It’s pretty amazing.”
Measures of success
As the Climate Scholars Program continues to grow, the university is expecting to reach 1,000 students and expand to include graduate students. Hirsch said breaking down the silos between research and education could create a network of passionate, informed and skilled individuals driving positive change for the environment and the world.
“We want to engage with as many students as we can who care about this, who are inspired by this model that we have created,” said Hirsch. “And so, for now, we have the door open to people who are interested and see this as one reason why UAF is so special.”
Hirsch believes that transforming students’ lives with tools, knowledge and experience is the measure of success.
“I think success for the program is about the success of the students,” added Hirsch. “And the success for the students is about feeling like they have the skills they need and the opportunities they need in order to make a meaningful difference.”
This summer, Heimke completed a summer course in marine research techniques as part of her degree program. Once again, she found herself on the ocean, witnessing humpback whales and a pod of orcas.
“I was captivated learning how oceanographic research is conducted,” said Heimke. “I did my own little project on ocean acidification near a tidewater glacier to tie together my passions for both the ocean and climate change.”
Her samples still need to be run in a special lab, so she doesn’t have results yet, but she plans to use that data for her capstone project for the Climate Scholars Program.
“I feel great about my decision to attend UAF,” she said, after reflecting on her initial hesitancy to attend the same school as her father. “I have really enjoyed my time here and am sad that I only have one year left.”