Wellesley Student Recognized for Environmental Advocacy Work
Idalmis Vaquero ’16, an environmental studies major, grew up in a section of East Los Angeles where factories, smoke stacks, and empty lots blighted the landscape. The only times she experienced fresh air and clean bodies of water were when she and her family went hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains through a nonprofit summer program.
Those childhood memories make Vaquero’s recent selection as a 2015 Udall Scholar all the more poignant, she said. The scholarship, provided by the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation, is awarded to college sophomores and juniors who have demonstrated leadership, public service, and commitment to issues related to Native American nations or to the environment. Scholars are given access to the Udall alumni network, four days of community-building with other 2015 scholars, and up to $5,000 for eligible academic expenses.
For Vaquero, environmental advocacy means working to promote public health and a clean, safe environment in communities of color. “I was motivated to fight for environmental justice in my community after hearing about the respiratory illnesses that many children were diagnosed with as a result of the environmental contamination we live with,” she wrote in her Udall application.
Last summer, as an organizing intern at Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), she mobilized young community members who helped to “permanently close a lead-acid recycling facility in southeast Los Angeles that had been emitting lead and arsenic in our community for over 15 years.”
When Vaquero, who hopes to attend law school, returned to Wellesley last fall, she documented the legal, policy, and organizing efforts of the CBE campaign, which she viewed as a model for other communities. The paper won a Student Library Research Award and fueled her desire to continue fighting for change, even here on campus, where she has advocated for a more diverse environmental studies curriculum and for increased resources to make the major more inclusive.
Alden Griffith, assistant professor of environmental studies, isn’t surprised that Vaquero was selected for the prestigious award. “Idalmis has an impressive ability to combine passion and hard work, both in the classroom and in the community,” he said. “Her leadership in efforts to bring about positive change has already made a difference for people and their environment.”
Vaquero learned about her Udall scholarship via Skype because she is in Argentina this semester, studying the intersection of environmental justice and health care in Buenos Aires through the SIT Public Health in Urban Environments program. She has visited primary care centers and hospitals, and volunteered in nongovernmental organizations related to public health. “This experience has enhanced my understanding of how the public health issues communities face are related to the conditions they live in,” she said. “I can’t wait to share these insights with other Udall scholars.”