Paterno Fellow fights for a more sustainable university

UNIVERSITY PARK, PA – With dreams of saving the world and inspiring others to do the same, Nora Van Horn, a triple graduate in Philosophy, Chinese and Global and International Studies, used her education to create lasting change at Penn State.

A native of Loretto, Pa., Van Horn said she came to Penn State as a quiet freshman. That year she had a great conversation with an elderly person living on her floor during which she received the following words of wisdom: “In college, it’s not about what you study, but from what you learn. This is how Van Horn’s journey began.

The Paterno Fellow and the Schreyer Scholar took courses that she thought they would enjoy. She started taking Chinese lessons and felt really supported by the Asian Studies Department. She also started taking philosophy classes and felt like she was learning a lot.

“Before that I was taking a 300-person science class, but now I was getting so much information and content and felt like I was learning in my philosophy classes,” she said. “I had a similar experience with global and international studies, and the Chinese major paired well.”

During her freshman year at Penn State, Van Horn joined EcoReps, Penn State’s sustainability ambassadors, where she worked to encourage fellow students to recycle and fought to reduce plastic waste.

“One of the things I learned in my philosophy classes was to ask questions, to be curious, to think critically about things until you can justify why they make sense. It’s learning to argue, ”she said. “There seemed to be this kind of mismatch between what really needed to be done to move everyone towards a more sustainable life and what was actually happening. Then I started to motivate myself.

From there, Van Horn got involved with the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA) and the Student Sustainability Advisory Council (SSAC). As the UPUA’s Director of Sustainable Development, she realized that she couldn’t do it all on her own.

“They wanted me to work on sustainability, and my thought was, ‘When I leave this job, all of this information is just going to disappear,’” she said. “If I go to all these meetings alone, working alone and developing all this expertise, the institutional knowledge will be lost very quickly. “

Within the UPUA, Van Horn started working to create a sustainability department. This meant bringing more people into the team, especially younger students who were passionate about specific aspects of environmental sustainability.

“I wanted to share what I learned and help them take it even further. I wanted to mentor them and support them until they could complete projects that I couldn’t even dream of, ”she said. “I want the next generation to be better at defending the environment.”

Van Horn worked with former UPUA President Zachary McKay and Vice President Lexy Pathickal when they introduced themselves and helped them think about how to resolve issues they believed existed on campus. and within the group. One of the issues they focused on was that the UPUA was insular.

“There weren’t a lot of outside student experts who could use the UPUA’s processes to make a change, and Zach and Lexy agreed that was a big deal,” she said. declared. “They were very supportive of this idea of ​​creating a department, so it was codified in the constitution of the UPUA and became an entity under the executive branch.”

Van Horn then decided to apply to the University Park Student Fee Board (UPSFB). She was motivated to apply because she was inspired by green fees at other institutions. She wanted to create something to use to advance environmental sustainability.

“I applied for the fees committee in April 2020 and worked closely with the president, Claire Kelling, over the summer to think about what the fund would look like, how we would divide the topic and jot down those projects, and who we needed to bring into the room, ”she said. “It was really cool because it was super participatory in nature. Members of the Fund’s board have reviewed the material and offered constructive criticism. In addition, the students came to comment on the audience. “

During the meetings, students could provide feedback and say what they thought the fees commission should do. The effort has resulted in an Environmental Sustainability Fund of $ 250,000 each year, which will allow Penn State University Park offices and organizations to apply for funding for projects that promote sustainability efforts on campus and have a positive impact on the student experience.

“It was cool to see that the student government and the UPSFB could be used for change. Students see that they can participate and share their feelings, ”she said. “Participation is so important to move the institution forward. It cannot be a single student.

In the summer of 2020, Van Horn also became a programming and student engagement intern for the Sustainability Institute at Penn State, a position she has held for a year and a half. She plans a series of weekly sustainability conferences and oversees the student organization affiliated with the Sustainability Institute, the Council of Sustainable Leaders.

Van Horn continually linked his work inside and outside of the classroom to each other. She is currently preparing an interdisciplinary specialization thesis in philosophy and civic engagement. The writing experience was an opportunity to build on the extracurricular experiences she had and apply critical theory to them. She said it helped her understand those experiences on a deeper level and incorporate lessons from “real world experiences” into her academic work.

Van Horn has come a long way since her freshman year – she’s on the court for Penn State Homecoming 2021. Van Horn said her inspiration comes from the fact that those feelings of being small and not having much power don’t. are not isolated.

“These feelings are very common among young students. In these students, I see glimpses of myself that I identify with, ”she said. “I see they’re so smart, they know what they’re talking about and they have fantastic things to say, but they’re not sure what their opinion is.”

She believes that being frank is more than just advancing your own point of view. It is also how you can bring another student with you and exchange knowledge and ideas.

“I see a lot of people who have really great things to say and are nervous to say them. I understand, “she said.” We have to show the example that it is okay to speak up. “

Last spring, Van Horn taught BA 397 “Act Now for a Sustainable Future” through Student Teaching Students, a unique opportunity for students to create, plan and teach formal courses at Penn State under the direction of a faculty member. She said the goal of the three-credit course is to further the mission of the Sustainability Institute and to encourage students to take action for a sustainable world.

Van Horn said her liberal arts education had helped her to think critically about the systems of the world.

“My liberal arts education in my first year made me ask myself, ‘Why is there so much emphasis on recycling and not on the polluters?’ Philosophy teaches me to ask these questions.

Van Horn at the Bund in Shanghai, China, while participating in an overseas education experience in 2019.

In 2019, Van Horn traveled to China for an overseas education experience. She has received enrichment funding through the Liberal Arts Career Enrichment Network, a Foreign and Regional Language Scholarship and Schreyer Honors College. Before the trip, she followed the PHIL 133N “Ethics of climate change”.

“A class unit focused on different moral systems and how to communicate with people other than you,” she said. “Taking this course before going to China has helped me seek to understand the views of many of those I have met in China, which has radically different political and social systems, rather than simply convincing them that my point of view was correct.

Her background in Chinese and Global and International Studies has also helped her understand things internationally. For her, the United States cannot work alone to tackle the world’s biggest problems, and it cannot simply be the United States prescribing solutions to other communities.

“The liberal arts have emphasized that empathy and the ability of individuals to effect change which I think is central to my work at Penn State,” she said.

To help him achieve his end goal of making a difference in the world, Van Horn plans to get involved in public policy, work on political campaigns, or do regulatory or anti-corruption work after the ‘graduation. She also plans to study law or graduate school.

To learn more about Van Horn and other liberal arts changemakers, visit

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