Ithaca College senior Abigail Aitken was announced as the 2022–23 C.P. Snow Scholar on April 27. Aitken earned the award for an essay she wrote about storytelling and its intersection with environmentalism.
The C.P. Snow Scholar award is presented to one or two students who compose an essay that demonstrates how their academics and extracurricular achievements combine both the humanities and the sciences. The last C.P. Snow Sholar was awarded in the 2016–17 academic year and Aitken is the first to be awarded since.
Aitken, an environmental studies and anthropology major, is a New York State Park FORCES Steward, a volunteer patron program primarily for students in the Central and Finger Lakes region. She is also a teaching assistant at South Hill Apiary and South Hill Forest Products, where she assists students with maple syrup and woodenware production.
Contributing writer Jonah Schweitzer talked with Aitken about her essay, her passion for environmentalism and storytelling.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jonah Schweitzer: What got you interested in environmentalism?
Abigail Aitken: I’ve always kind of been interested in it and I think it comes naturally to a lot of people who are our age. A lot of young people … have to care about the environment. I think that the reason why a lot of people care is because we’re drowning in climate catastrophe and if we don’t care, then we’re dooming ourselves and our descendants. I come from really highly developed suburbs, like the D.C. area and Maryland. And I think that … a lot of people [there] haven’t really had the opportunity to learn about plants and learn about natural systems and ecosystems and forests in the way that Ithaca College and living in this area has offered me. … Coming here and finding myself within the environmental studies and sciences department, I was able to learn plants and learn to identify plants and learn their names and learn their stories and learn the stories of our ecosystems and our forests and all of these fascinating dynamics that are going on.
JS: Do you think that you could distill the point of your essay into a couple sentences?
AA: One of the main points of my essay is about how storytelling is really important and essential. It is important as a discipline. … To get people to learn and listen and care about issues of science, specifically environmental science and the environmental issues that we face today [is important]. I think it is really about storytelling, especially in the face of climate catastrophe and how we can do that in a creative and engaging way … that doesn’t leave people behind.
JS: In the essay, you talked a bit about composting … Can you speak on that?
AA: It quite literally is turning sh*t into gold. When you home compost, you are taking the scraps of your stuff that you’re not using, stuff that you aren’t eating or can’t really eat, or stuff that’s … rotting. And throw these — which are very much driven by the microbes in the soil, microorganisms and all of these bugs and insects and little things that we don’t really think about that live on the earth — in a big pile… taking the stuff that … was your trash, that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill and turning it into this really rich soil. … It’s kind of a very easy example of the circle of life.
JS: Do you have any other suggestions for ways that people can get involved in environmentalism?
AA: I think that it can feel hard for people to act around climate issues because it feels so big. I think that is debilitating for people, which is understandable. The solution to that is starting on smaller levels. … Caring about the communities that you’re in and caring about local politics is something that can be really important for changing the way that we relate to the earth and changing the way that we’re damaging the planet. Even just learning a little bit more about how the planet that we’re on works and learning about these natural systems that affect all of us, but that so many people don’t think about because they’re not really taught. … I think that natural sciences are sometimes under-emphasized in curriculums, but learning little things and learning how to identify some of the flowers that grow outside, even if they are weeds or even if they’re invasive, just learning to call plants by name and learning about insects, and maybe not killing things immediately and just being curious [is a way to get involved].