State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Meet Tenzin Sherpa of the Climate and Society Class of 2024

Tenzin Sherpa headshot
Photo courtesy of Tenzin Sherpa

The daughter of Nepalese immigrants, Tenzin Sherpa describes her upbringing as being “filled with skyscrapers in NYC and mountains that tower over the Kathmandu valley.” Food was an important way for her to connect with her culture, and as she got older, she began to learn how food is linked with many other things, too — including climate change, globalization, social inequality, and our relationships with land.

Sherpa majored in Environmental Studies at Hamilton College and, after working on a research internship for the Columbia Climate School, decided to apply to the MA in Climate and Society program. She’ll be joining the Class of 2024 this fall, with a full scholarship from the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Fellowship, where she hopes to continue exploring urban agriculture and the decolonization of global food systems, among other interests. Learn more in the Q&A below.

Congratulations on receiving the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Fellowship! How did you react when you got the news? And what does this award mean to you?

I was beyond elated when I received the news! I remember calling my parents right after reading the update on my application portal and hearing the sounds of their cheers and laughter. I then told my friends, who also shared the same happiness and pride for my accomplishments. My loved ones were integral in finding support and inspiration during the application process, and I am so grateful that they have been able to follow me through my academic journey thus far. This fellowship means the world to me because I am able to work alongside and foster relationships with communities closest to home. It feels amazing to be coming home for my master’s program and having the opportunity to create a positive impact on the places and people who have formed my identity and passions.

Tell us about your background and how you found your way into the climate space.

I was born and raised in New York City. My parents immigrated to the US from Nepal, and I lived there for a short time when I was very young. Growing up in urban spaces for most of my life has provided me with a unique perspective on the climate crisis and subsequent climate justice movements. My first memory of engagement in the climate space that comes to mind is attending my first climate march in high school. Witnessing people from all walks of life marching proved to me just how pervasive and urgent the scale and intensity of the climate crisis continues to be. Before this moment, I thought of myself as separate from the environment because I lived in a big city. Hearing the stories of my family and learning more about the climate crisis, I realized just how universal the ‘environment’ is. My upbringing is one that is filled with skyscrapers in NYC and mountains that tower over the Kathmandu valley, two places which I hold very near and dear to my heart. Understanding the trajectory of my life and climate narrative helped me connect more to climate justice movements and inspired me to pursue an Environmental Studies major in college. It was there that I immersed myself into both the academic and advocacy sides of climate and environmental studies. I also enjoyed the interdisciplinary nature of my major, which allowed me to learn a breadth of knowledge in the sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. I found space in higher education to consolidate my stories and the knowledge of others to create opportunities for climate education and community-building. The truth is that I have always been immersed in the climate space, whether I knew it at the time or not. I just needed the tools and resources to articulate and build upon my knowledge and experiences.

Why did you decide to apply to the Climate and Society program, and what do you hope to gain from the program?

Prior to applying to the Climate and Society program, I participated in a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at Columbia Climate School before my final year of college. In this program, I created and facilitated climate justice workshops in collaboration with different youth organizations across NYC. Throughout my summer at Columbia, I was able to combine my passions of climate education and justice in ways that allowed me to be more creative and hands-on. The Climate School REU was a major factor in informing my decision to apply to the master’s program. I wanted to attend a program that continued the interdisciplinary education I received in my undergraduate education, and the Climate and Society program fit all of my needs. I was also incredibly drawn to the internship component of the program, which would allow me to continue the collaborative and community-oriented work that I want to pursue in the climate space.

While I am grateful to be continuing my education, I am most excited to create new connections with my fellow classmates and professors; I am looking forward to being in spaces once again where I can challenge my beliefs, broaden my perspective, and expand my knowledge.

Which classes are you most looking forward to, and why?

I am most looking forward to taking Applications in Climate and Society and the Human Rights and the Anthropocene elective. Both classes combine my passions for climate justice, recognizing the nexus of humans and the environment as one that is essential to creating solutions to the climate crisis. Applications in Climate and Society will expose me to the variety of methods in which I can contribute to the climate space, while Human Rights and the Anthropocene allows me the space to problematize past and current social and political systems that have affected change in a plethora of different fields and disciplines.

What do you envision as your future role in solving the climate crisis?

I see my role in solving the climate crisis as ever-changing and always part of a larger collective. I do not think that there is one person that can effectively “solve” the climate crisis, rather it requires the concerted effort of people from all over the world. Right now, I am passionate about urban agriculture and the decolonization of global food systems. I see myself at this point in time working with grassroots efforts that seek to localize food systems and Indigenous sovereignty. Food exists at the intersection between humans and the environment and thus is an incredibly pertinent field to problematize and explore.

I am not entirely sure how my role in the larger collective will change, but I hope to be versatile in the skills and knowledge I am able to employ as I gain new experiences and meet new people. Overall, I see myself working with first and foremost communities that have been disproportionately affected by the climate crisis, and working with them to create environmental futures that fit their visions of a just and equitable world.

What are you working on this summer?

Having graduated college this past May, I think that I will be using this summer as time to rest and reflect on my college experience as well as how much I have grown in the past four years. I also plan to continue my year-long senior thesis entitled Our Community Garden: An Analysis of Urban Agriculture and Environmental Justice in New York City by reaching out to the organizations I worked with and hopefully cutting the paper down to a more publishable length. I am incredibly proud of the work I produced for my thesis, and I believe that unpacking local and global food systems is essential towards creating equitable solutions for the climate crisis.

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