April 02, 2012

Student receives scholarship to support environmental career

Micah Leinbach ’14 is one of 80 college students nationwide to be honored by the Udall Foundation this spring as a future environmental leader.
  • Micah Leinbach '13 talks about stream ecology on a College Outdoors trip. Photo credit: Rye Druzin '13

Micah Leinbach ’14 is one of 80 college students nationwide to be honored by the Udall Foundation this spring as a future environmental leader. The Morris K. Udall Scholarship and Excellence in National Environmental Policy Foundation awards merit-based scholarships of up to $5,000 to college sophomores and juniors who have demonstrated outstanding potential and a commitment to preserving, protecting, or restoring environmental resources. Julia Huggins ’13 received an honorable mention.

Lewis & Clark students have been named Udall Scholars nine times in the past 11 years. In the following interview, Leinbach discusses his commitment to conservation and how his experiences at Lewis & Clark are preparing him to influence the field of environmental education. 

Micah Leinbach ’14
Hometown: Milwaukee, WI
Major: Environmental Studies
What inspired your interest in the environment?

I have to cite the usual fare of the environmentalist: vivid outdoor experiences in places that mean a lot to me. I grew up in the state that inspired John Muir and Aldo Leopold as boys. But I also grew up in a city, where I was keenly aware of the human dimension to my world—that dimension helped build it!

Environmental studies uses all my experiences, urban or not. I don’t see a divide. I don’t experience my life in two separate dimensions. Before being an environmentalist, I was an avid interdisciplinarian—so many ways of knowing matter. Issues of environment simply allow me to flex a huge range of muscles, both the mental (when I wonder) and the physical (when I work). It is an irresistible appeal.

How have you been involved in environmental advocacy?

Anyone who has read Muir or Leopold or Rachel Carson knows that when we talk about living well in a place—the fundamental struggle environmentalists address—we’re wrestling with those two ideas I mentioned: work and wonder. I don’t buy into everything those folks said, but work and wonder are themes I try to live by in life.

Honestly, it is thrilling to interrupt a lesson in stream ecology to teach people to safely navigate a canyon stream in flood, or to use the weather to show how climate patterns are governed by the exact same principles that help your coat keep you warm. Almost every weekend students get challenges like that through College Outdoors—Joe Yuska and the rest of the staff run an exceptional program.

Lewis & Clark itself is a great testing ground for sustainability issues. Two years ago, we got a C on the Sierra Club’s report card. There were good reasons for that. This year, we were the top school in Oregon. And there is a good reason for that: my peers and the staff empowering them. Amy Dvorak runs our sustainability office and is so valuable to this institution. I have worked with her too many times to count, and we still have an endless to-do list. Anyone who wants to do something green on this campus should get to know Amy; she is a remarkable resource and a wonderful person.

Do you work closely with faculty? What is that experience like?

No question, the faculty are the lifeblood of the institution’s values. They care. Professors have sought me out to talk about my future when I’ve never even had a class with them. Liz Safran, the environmental studies director, is a great example. She has turned so many nonscience types into geology geeks through her theatrics and passion. We meet almost every week to coordinate things like the environmental affairs symposium or just talk out ideas, and every time I leave excited about something.

Jim Proctor is also doing great work getting students noticed through his Situating the Global Environment initiative. It is tearing down the perceived divide between “academic” and “practical” pursuits. The environmental studies program wrestles with global issues and challenges the “sacred cows” of environmentalism because the faculty members are so involved. Then they give you the communication skills and media that will make those discussions matter elsewhere.

We don’t often acknowledge it, but bitter battles define the progress of this institution, academia writ large, and environmental action alike. Faculty go at each other’s ideas with a (politely constrained) vengeance all the time. I love it when they let students be a part of that process; it has taught me a lot. If you can avoid antagonism for its own sake while reveling in the conflict, you’ll learn. And that’s our goal, right?