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Climate change fight began at university

[ The University of Melbourne Voice Vol. 6, No. 5  3 May - 13 June 2010 ]

By Christopher Strong

Ellen Sandell, who jointly won the Environment Minister’s Young Environmentalist of the Year Award for 2009, first started acting on environmental issues while studying a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science at the University of Melbourne. She is now Director of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition in Victoria (AYCC).

While Ms Sandell cannot remember the source of her passion for the environment, she believes her parents may have influenced her while she grew up in Alice Springs and Mildura – her mother has always been passionate about equality and her father works in national parks.

“I had always volunteered in high school, mainly for homeless issues, and when I came to university – it was around the time of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth – I joined the environment collective,” she says.

“I’ve always had an action personality. I’m one of those people who just jumps into things, so when I got to the University, I just looked around for what opportunities were there.”

Her first environmental campaign was lobbying the University libraries to switch to recycled toilet and photocopy paper.

“Through that first project, which wasn’t a complete success, I gained experience working with people on a campaign and in lobbying. And with each campaign, regardless of success or failure, I have learnt more and looked to the next thing that I could do,” she says.

While at the University of Melbourne she was elected Environmental Officer of the Student Union.

“I believe the University of Melbourne’s Student Union is one of the best resourced and funded student bodies of all Australian universities. This made it a great place to base our work and launch campaigns. While in the position of Environmental Officer I was part of a successful campaign that led to the University of Melbourne setting a target of becoming carbon neutral by 2030,” she says.

After a number of successful local campaigns she realised that to make a change at the national level, she needed to address what she believed was the root cause of the problem in Australia – the lack of young voices putting pressure on the Australian Government to act on climate change.

“I knew a mass movement was required to enable the Australian Government to act. But I knew I could not do this on my own, so I joined the AYCC, which is a whole group of people with the same vision. The AYCC believe young people will be the generation most affected by climate change and that this problem is so urgent that the Government is the only one able to implement a solution with such a small time frame,” she says.

Although her arts majors in Spanish and Linguistics do not seem directly related to her current work, she is thankful for the Arts education in helping her to build communication skills that are vital to working with a group like AYCC.

“Sometimes when I write project reports or media releases it feels like I am doing university assignments. I have friends who studied specialised areas in other undergraduate degrees and they feel they haven’t been prepared for their first jobs out of university which require skills in areas like research and communication,” she says.

She is thankful for her Bachelor of Science degree, with a major in genetics, for giving her the basics of science.

“At the moment we are working on a video to debunk myths about climate change. To do this effectively, we need to talk about science to an audience who knows nothing about it, which is quite difficult. This is where having a degree in arts with knowledge in science can be useful,” she says.

As part of a wide range of activities which engage the community, Ellen often gets asked to visit high schools to speak about climate change and about leadership.

“I didn’t set out to become a leader, so I always come back to my first lesson – just do it. If you’re the first one out there actively doing something to solve a problem then you’ll naturally fall into a leadership role,” she says.

Ellen won the Environment Minister’s award jointly with her colleagues Amanda McKenzie, also a graduate of Arts at Melbourne, and AYCC founder Anna Rose, who resides in Sydney.

Ellen was in Copenhagen for the Climate Change summit and met Climate Change Minister Penny Wong. From Copenhagen she travelled to Spain and spent some time revitalising her passion for Spanish.

To learn more about the AYCC, visit

Ellen Sandell traces her passion for the environment to the influence of her parents when she was growing up in Alice Springs and Mildura.

[ Natalie Pestana ]

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