Jonah Stern ’23 brought his excitement for the outdoors to the University of Vermont (UVM). He enriched his Environmental Sciences major with place-based educational and outdoor experiences that led to leadership roles on campus and helped to bring students together around experiences they might not otherwise have.

Growing up in Macungie, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Allentown, Jonah didn’t spend much time outside until his high school AP Environmental Science course. His favorite part of the class? Hands-on fieldwork with his classmates.

He knew then he wanted to attend a college with a strong environmental sciences program, and he discovered the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at UVM.

“Not many colleges have a dedicated school for just the environment,” said Jonah, who visited the Rubenstein School during a UVM Admitted Student Visit day.

During the visit, a session with Rubenstein School faculty member Walter (Walt) Poleman and a current student sealed the deal for Jonah. Walt talked about his first-year course on natural history and human ecology for all incoming Rubenstein School undergraduates. He and the student described field labs and places across Vermont that first-year students would explore—from the top of Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak, to a tour of Lake Champlain on board the UVM research vessel.

“When it came time for me to take the course as a first-year student," said Jonah, "I got to experience all those places, and it was just as amazing as Walt and the student said it would be!”

Jonah’s desire to share his enthusiasm for the course steered him into a teaching assistant position his junior year, and he led weekly field labs.

“It’s a fun time to connect with students because it is their first semester, and they get so excited about learning,” said Jonah. “For a lot of them, it is their first time experiencing Vermont, just like it was for me, and I tried to make sure they had a good transition.”

Campus Connections

Jonah’s own first-year concluded with the start of COVID and remote learning. To create connections at a time when he couldn’t meet people in person, he joined virtual meetings of the UVM Asian Student Union.

“I discovered a community I didn’t think existed at UVM, with people who shared my identity as Asian American and my experiences at a predominately white institution,” said Jonah, who served as vice-president while a junior and led meetings and events, including a Lunar New Year celebration, to foster an inclusive and diverse community.

Jonah discovered another group on campus—People of Color Outdoors (POCO), a UVM club, which gave him experiences and skills to become an outdoor enthusiast and trip leader. When the previous POCO student leader graduated, Jonah inherited co-leadership of the club of ten members.

“We were really intentional about building a BIPOC community rather than focusing solely on outdoor recreation,” said Jonah, who helped the club grow to more than 50 members by partnering with the UVM Mosaic Center for Students of Color. Movie nights and Mosaic breakfasts before POCO hikes helped to build a strong and interactive community.

His successful community building earned Jonah the Rodger Summers Award from the Mosaic Center. The award honors a student who impacts UVM’s BIPOC community through leadership and vision.

He applied his leadership and outdoor skills to help set up the Rubenstein School’s first Gear Library, which lends outdoor clothing and equipment to students.

“An unspoken prerequisite for Rubenstein School field labs has always been that students come prepared with all the necessary outdoor clothing and equipment, but some students might not have the right winter boots or coats,” said Jonah. “The Gear Library provides access to this equipment for free, so that all students can have a comfortable and equitable experience outdoors.”

Place-based Learning

Jonah’s drive to strengthen others’ environmental experiences drew him to the cross-campus Place-based Education Certificate program. With Walt as mentor, he learned ways to deepen connections between people and places in local communities and natural environments.

His passion for place-based experiences took him to Costa Rica for a semester abroad program. There, Jonah bonded with classmates, instructors, and local residents in a shared mission to learn and sustainably connect people and place.

While working in a Costa Rican village, Jonah and his classmates conducted a census survey to gather population data the community lacked, and his minor in Geospatial Technologies equipped him with skills to create a useful map for the community. For a capstone project, he helped to build connectivity between rural farmers and markets to sell produce.

Through his continued association with Walt, Jonah got involved with a partnership between the Rubenstein School and the High School for Environmental Studies (HSES) in New York City. COVID interrupted the schools’ long history of shared faculty and student interaction, and Jonah helped Walt re-strengthen a place-based education program between the two schools.

“Both sides can learn a lot through reciprocal parallels to one another’s schools,” said Jonah, who visited HSES with Walt. “Rubenstein students can learn about urban ecology and environmental education, and HSES students can learn about the natural environment.”

Through his many campus leadership roles and field and travel experiences, Jonah realized his passion for connecting people to place and helping them build academic, social, and outdoor skill sets.

“Walt had the most influence on my UVM experience from beginning to end,” said Jonah. “Place-based education became the forefront of my academic pathway and tied into most of my experiential learning.”

Top Ranking UVM Senior

At the May 2023 Commencement, UVM presented Jonah with the prestigious F.T. Kidder Medal, awarded each year to the senior ranking first in leadership, scholarship, and character. This honor recognized Jonah's extraordinary strengths of friendliness, interpersonal skills, and advocacy to support students from marginalized backgrounds and his outstanding curiosity to explore multicultural relations at a predominately white university. The tribute acknowledged Jonah's exceptional role as a leader in the Asian Student Union, for People of Color Outdoors, and in the Rubenstein School's first-year course and the School's innovative partnership and exchange with the High School for Environmental Studies in Manhattan. 


Shari Halik