My Climate Story expands across continent with Campus Correspondents

My Climate Story, a project from the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities, now has 12 correspondents gathering climate stories from 12 campuses across North America.

Faith Bochert and Maria Villarreal Simon.
Faith Bochert and Maria Villarreal Simon volunteered at the My Climate Story table at GreenFest in April 2024.

Maria Villarreal Simon recalls that she was 14 the first time she visited the beach in December near her hometown of Tampico, Mexico. The ocean temperature was bearable. Compared to her early childhood, the summers were getting longer and the winters shorter, she says, and it became normal to keep going to the beach in winter.

Shortly after Seema Parmar graduated from high school last June, the smoke from the Canadian wildfires drifted to her hometown of Basking Ridge, New Jersey. “I was constantly wearing a KN95 mask, the sun was bright red, and I just felt that was so unnatural,” she says. “I remember feeling nauseous and sick throughout the entire experience.”

A Denver native, Faith Bochert grew up accustomed to very snowy winters in a locale known for its skiing. “My grandmother always told everyone who would listen that the seasons in Colorado had shifted by a month,” Bochert says, and she was alarmed when snowfall didn’t arrive until after Christmas her senior year of high school.

These three are, respectively, a rising third-year, a rising second-year, and recent graduate of Penn, and these are their climate stories. They are all involved in different capacities with the new MCS Campus Correspondents program from My Climate Story, a public research project in the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities (PPEH) in the School of Arts & Sciences. The 12 campus correspondents from 12 universities across North America, who were selected in January, gather climate stories from their campuses and promote climate literacy.

From Pennsylvania to Puerto Rico, from Texas to Massachusetts, from Florida to Utah, the correspondents approach students on campus and explain what a climate story is—an account of how someone is personally affected by the existential challenge of climate change, not to be confused with a weather event—and ask if the students want to share their story.

The correspondent then films the participants’ responses. With transcription text and music added, videos are uploaded to the Instagram account @my_climate_story and TikTok account @ppeh_lab.

“People are thrilled to be asked their climate stories. They really want to talk. There’s an incredible therapeutic value,” says Bethany Wiggin, professor of German and founding director of PPEH.

Faith Bochert at My Climate Story table.
Faith Bochert looked at the climate stories people have shared during GreenFest.

Wiggin launched My Climate Story in 2020, a project “borne out of my experience of realizing even myself that having a firsthand experience of a climate impact in my life made me feel very differently,” she says. “And I’m somebody who’s very climate-educated; I think and teach about environmental history all the time.”

Since 2021-22, different public research interns have joined My Climate Story and moved it forward in different ways, Wiggin says. The project’s story bank has grown to hundreds of short stories, searchable by topic, location, and the feelings they elicit.

A lot of work uploading stories and maintaining the story bank come from Bochert, a public research intern with My Climate Story. While people may think of climate data as being about temperature and sea level measurements, she says, “we believe it’s just as important that we are cataloguing and researching in narrative data, so our story bank acts as a compendium to the other more quantitative data banks.”

Bochert, a recent Wharton School graduate with concentrations in finance and business, energy, environment, and sustainability, became involved with My Climate Story in her third year after working in Penn Sustainability as a student Eco-Rep. She is also an environmental humanities minor.

Spreading storytelling beyond Penn

The idea for campus correspondents originated in conversations between Wiggin and Villarreal Simon after the student took a class with Wiggin and became an MCS public research intern in the spring of her first year. Villarreal Simon says she loved watching TikToks from a man in New York City asking couples on the street how they met, and she had seen similar formats on different topics, so she thought this would work for climate stories. Wiggin loved the idea.

“I always want to hear from students about how do you see yourself in this project?” Wiggin says. “I really try to think of myself as their enabler, in a good way, and encourage and spur them on and also make suggestions.”

Villarreal Simon conducted interviews and posted videos of friends throughout the spring of 2023, and, as the self-proclaimed introvert became more comfortable, she began approaching people on Locust Walk.

Maria Villarreal Simon interviews student.
As an intern with My Climate Story, Maria Villarreal Simon interviewed Penn students about their climate stories, a precursor to the Campus Correspondents program. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Program in Environmental Humanities)

Seeing the way Villarreal Simon ran with this idea, Wiggin thought the project could be scaled to other campuses. Wiggin says she envisioned a “dialogue across North America” that focused on both individual climate stories and the kind of climate education people are receiving, saying that climate storytellers could come together to advocate for better climate education in the sciences and humanities. As project interns, Villarreal Simon and Bochert have steadily expanded its video and multimedia stories, and they are featured in a five-minute documentary short the team made about the Campus Correspondents initiative.

Last fall, Wiggin utilized her academic networks to publicize the opportunity for undergraduates across the continent. My Climate Story had funding to provide work contracts for 12 students, including one from Penn, but received more than 50 applications.

Wiggin, Villarreal Simon, and Bochert read the applications. Achieving geographic diversity was important to them, says Wiggins, who underscored the desire to include stories about hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts along with the everyday impacts of climate change.

‘It has to be something tangible’

The campus correspondent from Penn is Seema Parmar, a rising second-year student majoring in mathematical economics and environmental studies. She says working on the Green Spaces, Active Places campaign with Sunrise Philadelphia, a youth-led climate movement she joined in the fall, made her think about the importance of highlighting the direct impacts of climate change that Philadelphians are facing. Parmar says there is sometimes a disconnect with abstract, academic language used about climate change, and she wants to use My Climate Story to show how Philadelphians are combatting its consequences.

“If we want to highlight climate change, it has to be something tangible; it can’t be this abstract, futuristic notion, and that has been something I’ve been thinking about for a pretty long time,” she says. That mindset, along with hearing about climate storytelling in a class she was taking with climate scientist Michael Mann, spurred her to apply to be a campus correspondent.

One of her training sessions involved workshopping an op-ed on their experience with My Climate Story and what they’ve learned; The Daily Pennsylvanian published Parmar’s op-ed in late April.

“Every single person I’ve interviewed has had a really interesting climate story that has changed my perspective on climate change and has contributed to this feeling of urgency,” Parmar says. She says most people she interviewed initially did not think they had a climate story, but they all do.

Bochert, who has helped support the campus correspondents along with Wiggin and Villarreal Simon, says one story she heard multiple times from correspondents in the Pacific Northwest was how more and more people are spending money to install air conditioning in their homes.

“It’s these small details like, ‘I used to open my windows and now I don’t’ that are really emotionally compelling and stick with people,” Bochert says. She adds that she loves that the program has shown how important personal and regionally specific details are for characterizing the state of the climate.

My Climate Story footer.