By Laura Schmidt, Office of Sustainability
Twenty-year-old University of Utah student Matt Kirkegaard knows what he wants to do. Whether his efforts are spent on campus, off campus, or planning for his future career, Matt keeps sustainability constantly in mind.
“I’m always looking to promote sustainability,” says Kirkegaard.
A native of Salt Lake City, and in his third year at the U, Kirkegaard is majoring in Political Science and Environmental & Sustainability Studies. The value of the environment was imprinted on him because of his time spent as a youth traveling to several national parks around the western United States with his family. When he began noticing the devastation by the oil and gas industries to the lands he loved, Kirkegaard knew he wanted to devote his life to environmental policy issues.
Kirkegaard’s passion for stewardship paid off this year when he was awarded one of 50 Udall Scholarships from the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation. Nearly 500 students were nominated for the scholarship.
Kirkegaard says that receiving the news about the scholarship was the “best phone call of my life.”
The Udall Scholarship was established in 1992 to honor brothers Morris and Stewart Udall. Morris Udall was a U.S. Congressman from Arizona for 30 years, and Stewart served as Secretary of the Interior. The award is given to sophomore or junior students who are committed to careers in one of three categories: the environment, tribal public policy, or Native American health care. Kirkegaard received his scholarship for his commitment to an environmental career.
In addition to a $5,000 prize that is provided to go toward undergraduate education costs, recipients are invited to attend a week-long orientation with policymakers and community leaders in environmental issues, as well as tribal health care and governance. In August, Kirkegaard traveled to Tucson, Ariz., where he met the other 49 scholarship winners. He was in the company of students who created non-profits, were Truman Scholars or finalists, and those who spoke multiple languages. Scholars had the opportunity to practice and improve their skills, especially in “negotiating and collaborative decision-making,” explains Kirkegaard. The scholars were mentored by members of Congress and others in careers related to environmental or tribal interests. This experience allowed Kirkegaard to “figure out how to follow in their footsteps.”
“Being there was purely an honor,” Kirkegaard says. “I would definitely sacrifice the award money for the orientation experience.”
Matt is only the second student from the U to receive the scholarship (The first was Brian Emerson).
Kirkegaard’s past work includes assisting The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), the City of Salt Lake, and Wasatch Community Gardens. Kirkegaard says that, these opportunities have taught him a variety of skills, such as grant writing, community organizing, and environmental monitoring and compliance.
Last year, Kirkegaard was involved in Fossil Free U, a campaign designed to encourage the University to divest from fossil fuel funds. Kirkegaard also received a Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund (SCIF) grant last spring to purchase RecycBikes to use at Recycle Rice-Eccles (See also: “Cheer for Red, But Be Green at Football Games“). With the $4,500 award, Kirkegaard invested in three bikes made by Madsen Cycles. The bikes have large cargo buckets on the back of the bike, which help students collect recyclables during and after football games.
This fall, Kirkegaard is planning to be peer advisor for the Environmental & Sustainability Studies department. Kirkegaard feels that mentoring underclassmen one-on-one allows them to hear a student’s perspective and provides them behind the scenes information about the program. The aim is to help the underclassmen be better prepared.
He is also looking for other opportunities to engage around campus. “I’m always trying to get involved, and get my hands in policy,” says Kirkegaard. “That’s what I love to do. Right now, I’m trying to sit on a couple of university committees.”
After graduating from the U, Kirkegaard hopes to attend graduate school in international environmental policy. He is interested in learning more about security issues, environmental security, how the environment affects national security, human security, and regional security – all of which are becoming more pertinent in the face of climate change, Kirkegaard says. Ultimately, Kirkegaard’s goal is to have a career in the state department or an international agency where he can travel and also work in environmental policy formulation and implementation at the highest level possible.
Kirkegaard says his drive is maintained by “living by an informed conscience and by the resolute dedication to do good, to love, and to be happy. On a far less profound note, I’m also a competitive political junkie.”
Laura Schmidt is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities. She is a graduate assistant in the Office of Sustainability.