It all began with a movie. The Inconvenient Truth, to be exact. Daniela Fernandez, then a student at Chicago's Lincoln Park High School, saw Al Gore's climate change documentary, and she knew she had to figure out how she — and other young people — could fix the environment.
"I feel like our generation really grew up with the mentality that the world is coming to an end if we don't do something about the environment," she tells Bustle in a phone conversation. "I still remember very clearly — the CO2 charts showing up on the screen. That really gave me an insight early on in my life that we as millennials need to do something before it's too late."
In high school, Fernandez channeled that passion into a project: she fundraised to get her school to install solar panels on the school's roof. It worked, and the panels are still there to this day.
But when she got to college, she started to think about ways she could enact change on an even bigger scale.
Now a senior at Georgetown University in Washington DC, Fernandez is the founder of Georgetown's Sustainable Oceans Alliance, an environmental activism group that has since branched out to other universities and colleges throughout the country — all under the watchful eye and leadership of Fernandez. She says she was inspired to think about change on a global scale after attending a UN meeting on climate change in New York City. "I'm looking around and I'm the only young person in the room," she says. "I realized that we had to do something soon and that the responsibility will fall on our generation to take action."
On the train ride back to Georgetown, Fernandez plotted what would become the Sustainable Oceans Alliance. She imagined it as a platform that would become the matchmaker between millennials and world leaders — an organization that would inspire both to work together to preserve our oceans. The idea was a good one — a great one — but making it happen proved to be difficult.
"I was faced with a lot of paperwork, a lot of push-back. People saying, 'Oh, we already have over a hundred environmental organizations. Maybe you should join one,"" Fernandez says. "But I had a different vision for what this organization could be."
She proceeded to create the structure and groundwork for the alliance almost singlehandedly, and now, as a member of the organization's board, she helps colleges across the country launch their own Sustainable Oceans Alliance chapters.
Since the SOA's inception, the organization has also hosted multiple summits with world leaders, researchers, journalists, and more experts in the field of climate change. This past month, the Sustainable Oceans Alliance, the U.S. Department of State, and Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service co-hosted the "Our Ocean, One Future: Leadership Summit" — a two day conference that emphasized how millennials can help preserve the ocean's dwindling resources. Fernandez was able to secure Secretary of State John Kerry as the Keynote Speaker for the summit, a feat she counts among her greatest achievements at Georgetown. She says one of her greatest challenges in the process of founding the SOA was convincing people she wasn't dreaming too big. Securing the Secretary of State as a speaker proved them wrong.
"Being told 'no' repeatedly and being told I was thinking too big and this could only fail, pushed me and made me more determined to make this happen," she says.
Though Fernandez received a lot of pushback in the creation and success of the SOA, she also received a lot of advice — some good, some bad. Separating the two and following her own path wasn't always easy, but Fernandez learned something from everyone.
"Take every single piece of advice with a grain of salt," she says. "Write it down. Take the good from it. Take the bad from it. Learn from every conversation you have. But don't let it be the determining factor in the action you're going to take."
When it comes to action, Fernandez doesn't follow advice; she follows her heart, her gut, her conscience, and her brain.
The young activist graduates from college this December, but her work with the SOA won't end with her departure from Georgetown. Though she will remain on SOA's board, she hopes to find an NGO that will permanently fund the alliance and take over the operations. She plans to get a job in the financial or strategic sector — experience she hopes will get her into business school. She'll need every bit of experience she's gained to make her dream job happen: she wants to start a tech investment firm that finds and funds socially responsible businesses looking for ethical solutions to the world's problems.
"[The environment] is not a partisan issue," she says. "Climate change is something we are seeing day-to-day. We have the responsibility to take action before it's too late."
Images: Courtesy of Daniela Fernandez; Design: Caroline Wurtzel / Bustle
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