Han Vale ‘20: Finding Space in Sustainability at Dartmouth

Growing up in Wilmington, Massachusetts, Han Vale ‘20 felt very stuck. Climate change felt like a never ending sense of impending doom. Looking around she did not see people caring about the changing climate with the same sense of urgency that she did. Constant questions about the sustainability of everyday choices plagued her childhood. Han tried to start a sustainability club in high school, but no one was interested. Coming to Dartmouth, she was surprised by the level of care that was given to climate change in the classroom. Departments like Geography, Environmental Studies, and Earth Sciences all provide students the necessary tools to better understand and care for the earth. Although Vale held several internships with the Sustainability Office throughout her Dartmouth career, what really stands out in her mind is the physical space that the Sustainability Office provided to students. Oftentimes one could find students and employees connected to the office in Fairchild and Robinson Hall. Han thinks that “through observing and learning [she] was able to find a way to make a definition of sustainability that [she] could relate to.” Getting to know people within the space such as Sustainability Office staff member Dalia Rodriguez and fellow classmate Benny Adapon helped her to feel supported in her own sustainability work. To Han, Benny and Dalia embraced an understanding of sustainability that brought their own cultural identities into context and provided a broader perspective on resource preservation.

To be able to walk into Fairchild and know where to find these supportive voices was especially important to Han because of the way that Dartmouth social circles are often tied to a sense of place. “Our identity in many ways is tied to where you are at Dartmouth in so many complicated ways,” reflects Vale. On campus certain student organizations and personalities are known to congregate in various spaces. From which side to eat in at FOCO or where to study spaces at Dartmouth come with unspoken rules and constructs. To have a home within this landscape of delineated spaces was a very important aspect of Han’s time at Dartmouth.

She also emphasizes the privilege of being able to connect with invited guest scholars and speakers through the Sustainability Office and having the space and freedom to engage with them in deeper ways outside of the formal event. These privileges are often lost now due to the online nature of our current world. For Han, and many others, the teaching moments found within these informal moments are priceless. Moments like these were important to Han because having conversations with individuals who are working on the ground “helps to conceptualize who you want to be after Dartmouth.” Smaller events allowed more space for student voices to be heard. To see her peers “light up and bring conversation to the room” is something that Han remembers fondly. Han recognizes the frustration for those who were able to benefit from these organic interactions and the challenges of trying to recreate them in an online format. Although now we live in a time where these moments are rare, the legacy of these interactions lives on for Han, even in her home. Han lives with four Dartmouth alumni who were all connected to the Sustainability Office in some way.

Han is particularly grateful for the people that Dartmouth gave to her. Everyone from professors to friends and classmates challenged her ways of thinking and were there to grow with her. In the end, Han thinks it also gave her a lot of paradoxes. One that stands out is the question of if it is possible to achieve true sustainability on stolen land.

As a fellow in the Geography department this term, Han is grateful for the chance to learn and think about ideas that she had not gotten a chance to during her undergraduate career. She is also seizing the opportunity to interact with and advocate for students in ways in which she had hoped someone might have advocated for her. Looking forward, Han is thinking a lot about the ways in which we consume information in the age of social media and how many current events deserve more depth and attention than they are afforded.

Han couldn’t find the answers to the questions she has been asking her whole life at Dartmouth but it has given her the resources and the people to help guide her journey toward the answers. She acknowledges that while the world may seem like it is in a hopeless state with numerous issues including environmental degradation, and social injustice, it is worth it to keep pushing and fighting for the world that we all want to live in. In relation to this way of thinking, Han refers back to a Toni Morrison quote: “I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it.”


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