Heidi Hahn Is Ready to Save the Environment

At only 18 years old, Heidi Hahn is a force leading environmental awareness and activism among college students on Virginia Tech’s campus.


“I think it's our generation that are the ones fighting for the environment. A lot of older people grew up without learning environmental practices, and, honestly, [they] don't really care that much about the environment, which is really sad,” Hahn said. “But there are a bunch of movements on college campuses and other countries and some of the United States about the climate change movement.”


Her blue eyes light up when she talks about the potential for change and the awareness that environmental activism can bring.



Raised in the suburbs of Charlottesville, Virginia, nature has been a powerful presence in Hahn’s life all throughout her formative years. Growing up, her family kept chickens and bees in their backyard. At 13, her uncle, a scuba diving instructor, began to teach her how to scuba in Maui, Hawaii. Scuba diving allowed her to see coral bleaching and its effects over time.


During her sophomore year of high school, Hahn had a conversation with her mother and realized she had a great deal of passion for the environment, learning about environmental issues and spreading awareness.


“I like spreading environmental awareness because when I share with people, a lot of people are really passionate about it and a lot of people have questions about it,” Hahn said. “I feel like the more and more that I learn, the more and more I can educate people.”


As a freshman majoring in Environmental Policy and Planning, Hahn is already a vocal and energetic member in the community of environmental organizations at Tech.


The world is at a tipping point for creating a better future. According to the 2016 United Nations article, “Rate of Environmental Damage Increasing Across Planet but Still Time to Reverse Worst Impacts”, “The assessments, which are based on scientific data and peer-reviewed literature, find that there is still time to tackle many of the worst impacts of environmental change, such as the damage to marine ecosystems and the rising level of air pollution, which has become one of the world’s most widespread environmental health risks.” Being an agent of change is crucial in today’s world and individuals like Hahn recognize this.



Hahn, like her peers, believes human behavior has a significant impact on the environment. According to the 2019 Pew Research Center article, “Generation Z Looks a Lot Like Millennials on Key Social and Political Issues”, “Gen Zers’ views about climate change are virtually identical to those of Millennials and not markedly different from Gen Xers. About half in all three generations say the earth is getting warmer due to human activity.” Unlike from past generations, Generation Z, those born between 1995-2015, has seen the emergence of its leaders as only teenagers and young adults in the wake of today’s fractured social climate. Hahn’s activism and momentum distinguish her as a leader for the environmental movement on Virginia Tech’s campus.


Starting in Fall 2019, she will begin a year-long term as the President of Environmental Student Organization. Although the organization is fairly small at the moment, with about 10 active members, ESO operates more like the close group of friends that it is.


One of their primary projects is battery pickups on-campus. ESO has placed canisters around residence halls, academic buildings and a few dining halls on Virginia Tech’s campus for battery pickups. After members pick up the batteries, they are taken to a waste recycling program.


ESO currently runs a lunch recycling program at Harding Elementary School in Blacksburg, Virginia. This involves organizing, sorting and taking the lunch components to the trash or recycling them.


Hahn has greater ambitions for ESO in the coming year, with plans to work with campus partners in Housing and Residence Life and Dining Services. Together they want to educate individuals about the opportunities they have to implement environmental change on-campus through the Request for Proposal for Sustainability Initiatives by Student Organizations (Green RFP Program).



Beginning in Fall 2019, Hahn will also start her term as Social Media Coordinator for Environmental Coalition. This student-run organization at Virginia Tech completes different projects around campus and the local community, united under the mission to advocate for a sustainable future.


Environmental Coalition opens up space for individuals to learn about and practice a sustainable lifestyle. The group executed the first Big Plant this year, where individuals planted trees in two Blacksburg areas: Stroubles Creek and Paris Mountain Farm. They had over 300 volunteers and planted 6,000 trees.


Hahn’s empathetic nature and steadfast determination have been noticed by her peers.


“She already is a leader. I think she's a natural leader, and she has a kindness and passion and motivation and accountability,” said Penina Harte, President of Environmental Coalition. “I'm super excited that she's part of the EC, and that she does exist for humanity because we need people like that.”


Hahn has become the point person on the Environmental Coalition for a divestment campaign to eliminate the university’s investments in the fossil fuel industry. Hahn and the Environmental Coalition expect the university’s endowment fund to profit from divesting. The campaign has been approved by the Student Government Association and the Graduate Student Association.


“Divesting would show that Virginia Tech is a leader because no public institution has ever actually divested before. We have been getting no responses from the Board of Visitors. We've been really getting no support from the school, and we're trying to cooperate with them,” Hahn said. “So, it's frustrating to just feel so low and so small. We're trying to do something good.”



Hahn’s energy for helping the planet can be felt in the space around her. She keeps a set of silverware and reusable straws in her backpack. There are pictures of mountains, oceans, lakes, and canyons in her room.


Her drive for helping the planet has sparked friendships and motivated others.


“I don't know if I would have had the courage to go to environmental coalition alone,” said Kate Santus, Environmental Coalition member. “She helped me step out of my comfort zone and it's one of the best decisions I've made this year, joining that club. It's really good that we help each other out.”


Hahn also runs an Instagram account, @essential_environment, where she posts ways to be more eco-friendly and shares events happening around campus.


Another advantage of the account is the ability to post pictures of nature. Since the account was started in spring 2019, it’s reached about 400 followers.


According to the 2018 Pew Research Center report, “Activism in the Social Media Age”, “Majorities of Americans do believe these sites are very or somewhat important for accomplishing a range of political goals, such as getting politicians to pay attention to issues (69% of Americans feel these platforms are important for this purpose) or creating sustained movements for social change (67%).” Social media has become a primary platform for activists to increase awareness and engage with the community and one another.



“Some people are filled with this understanding that we're alive and we need to do good in the world,” said Harte. “She is just a compassionate and kind and good person at her core.”


Hahn’s passion for the environment and learning about environmental issues has taken her as far as Hawaii. Summer 2018 she attended the Hawaii Outdoors Institute — where she’ll be returning this summer. At the institute, Hahn learned about ecosystems, trees, and water quality.


“Hopefully next semester, we'll be doing maybe a climate walkout or more protests with students to really show the Board of Visitors that we mean business," said Hahn.


Alongside her environmental activism, Hahn is working towards becoming a cleared EMT with Blacksburg Rescue — an extension of her compassionate nature.



Photos courtesy of Heidi Hahn and author.