Emory student earns Udall Scholarship for effective environmental advocacy

By April Hunt | Emory Report | May 21, 2018

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Zola Berger-Schmitz, a rising senior with nearly a decade of experience as an environmental advocate, has been named a 2018 Udall Scholar. Co-president of the Emory Climate Organization, she also co-founded Universities for a Greener Georgia. Emory Photo/Video

Zola Berger-Schmitz, a rising senior in Emory College of Arts and Sciences with nearly a decade of experience as an environmental advocate, has been named a 2018 Udall Scholar.

The $7,000 national award from the Udall Foundation recognizes college sophomores and juniors nationwide for leadership, academic achievement, public service and commitment to issues related to Native American nations, health care or the environment.

The 50 winners from around the country will gather in Tucson in August, to network with each other and program alumni and leaders in various fields.

For Berger-Schmitz, a Woodruff Scholar majoring in political science and music, the weeklong program will come after a summer internship as a policy analyst for the environmental business development office of Honda.

“I’m very interested in the expertise from policymakers who can help us understand past efforts that have succeeded and failed, so that we can identity the best steps forward for environmental change,” she says. “But I’m especially interested in how to initiate a strategy that involves students on the ground and can impact Georgia and other Southern states.”

Berger-Schmitz, co-president of the Emory Climate Organization since her sophomore year, has extensive experience working with peers as well as lobbying on the state level. She co-founded Universities for a Greener Georgia, an annual climate change conference that included seven Georgia universities last year, and was named a 2017 Youth Trailblazer by the Women in Green Forum.

The work has been a logical progression for Berger-Schmitz, who got her start in environmental issues in middle school, following an oceanography camp in her native California.

Under the guidance of Sarah Sikich, the former vice president of Heal the Bay, she became the youngest voice successfully pushing for the adoption of marine protected areas and the ban of single-use plastic bags. She went on to lobby state officials there on marine policy issues and give advocacy talks at TEDx and elsewhere.

A key lesson has been a willingness to compromise and find common ground, she says. In California, that meant working with commercial fisheries and recreational users of the coastal waterways.

“It’s been eye-opening to come to Georgia, get out of the California bubble and figure out how to best communicate the tremendous value of renewable energy,” says Berger-Schmitz, one of Emory’s delegates to the 2016 and 2017 United Nations Climate Talks.

For Georgia, it meant focusing on the economic benefits of renewable energy when she became one of the first college students in the state to testify before the Public Service Commission (PSC) about Georgia Power’s Integrated Resource Plan. Her efforts helped convince the utility to expand its commitment to solar energy.

“Testifying before the PSC is not very glamorous, but Zola is passionate about taking the steps to action,” says Eri Saikawa, assistant professor of environmental sciences, who first saw Berger-Schmitz in action as a first-year student at an Atlanta-area environmental conference.

“She puts research into action and is always thinking about how to make things happen,” Saikawa adds. “What’s fascinating to me is that she can absorb so many theories herself but is always thinking how to best make that material available and interesting to the public.”

Berger-Schmitz has honed her public outreach with two legislative internships, for former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California. She plans to pursue a master’s degree in environmental policy and then attend law school for preparation for a career in statewide energy law or policy.

“She’s already demonstrated a tremendous ability to take on an effective leadership role, and this scholarship will help her expand her impact,” says Daniel Rochberg, chief strategy officer of the Climate@Emory initiative.

“She blends intellectual curiosity with an impressive drive to follow where that curiosity takes her,” adds Rochberg, an environmental health instructor in Rollins School of Public Health. “I’m very excited to see what she’s going to do next.”

Berger-Schmitz is Emory’s second Udall winner in two years.

Fellow Woodruff Scholar Ellen Dymit, a junior majoring in environmental sciences and biology, was recognized with an honorable mention from the Udall Foundation. Dymit’s research and activism focuses on the conservation of threatened ecosystems and their resident species. She works with the Amphibian Foundation and the Atlanta Coyote Project, in addition to her on-campus research.