Student Spotlight: Passion Leads Student to U.N. Conference on Climate Change

February 09, 2015

Fourth-year University of Virginia student Dyanna Jaye is passionate about climate change – so much so that she applied to be a United States youth delegate to the 2014 United Nations Climate Change Conference, held in Peru in December. Not only was she selected, Jaye is in contention to lead the youth delegation to this year’s meeting in France.

This comes as no surprise to one of her faculty mentors, environmental sciences professor Deborah Lawrence. “She is both analytical and passionate, qualities that make others want to follow her and make them know they are right to do so,” Lawrence said.

The United Nations began gathering world leaders to address climate change in 1995, and the annual summit has been convened in a different country each year since. Youth delegates have observer status and come from around the world.

Jaye, who grew up in Chesapeake, is majoring in global development studies and environmental sciences. She is an active member of the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition, a statewide group of youth that combats climate change.

We recently caught up with her to discuss her experiences in Peru – and her favorite spot to find strawberry cake.

Q. How did you prepare for the summit?

A. I had to learn a lot. The United Nations definitely speaks its own language of U.N. policy-speak. I did some independent study work with Professor Lawrence and Professor David Edmunds in global development studies. I used the independent study time to do some policy research to at least be able to speak the language so I could have a better understanding of what was happening when I got to Lima.

I kind of perfectly crafted my majors at school to support that work. Having environmental science, I’ve been able to do more climate science classes that have definitely helped me prepare. Professor Lawrence runs a really good climate science and policy seminar. For global development studies, we get to pick our own thesis, so I made this my GDS thesis, to understand the U.N. climate process.

Q. What was your role at the conference?

A. A lot of what we were doing was tracking policy and then using media output as a way to bring accountability to what’s going on and provide a window into high-level negotiations that otherwise would be very cut off from people around the world. We worked to get the most out of the local media. I wrote a Cavalier Daily article while I was in Lima.

One of my personal challenges was to bridge the gap between local and international policy and help to create that narrative because Virginia is, I think, very important in this global climate narrative. I still feel like my primary role was with the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition – to draw our climate action work into a global spectrum and bring accountability to our state. I was really motivated to be a link between Virginia and climate action and the process of the global climate talks.

There were 20 youth delegates from across the nation, so if we focus on state level and local media, the message gets shared well to other youth engaged in climate. We did a lot of blogging, writing, talking to media.

Q. Can you describe a typical day at the conference?

A. These conferences are huge. It honestly takes a lot of your day trying to figure out what’s happening. You attend press conferences and meetings where civil society is briefing the rest of civil society on what’s happening in the negotiations. To some people, that would sound so boring, but to me it was a very exciting process to be part of.

I didn’t have a single issue that I was working on. It was more working within the global youth climate movement structure, which is something that is still very much developing. So, ‘How do we coordinate our movements across the world? How can we create spaces to share strategies and talk about what we’re doing nationally?’ As youth, we tried to put specific attention on projects and policies that we could see have a direct impact on our future.

The second week, I spent a lot of time focusing on how to bring the Keystone XL pipeline into the U.N. space. We did a lot of media outreach to the networks across the United States that are focusing on Keystone, trying to tie Keystone explicitly to the United States’ climate commitments. It’s something Obama has said he won’t approve if the pipeline is shown to seriously exacerbate the climate. As youth, we felt an obligation to connect those narratives.

Q. Why are you so passionate about climate change?

A. I would be very foolish to say that my parents didn’t have anything to do with it. I have two parents who are both geologists, who worked really intentionally to make sure that my sister and I saw the effects of the change in climate as we were growing up. I think about all of our vacations when we were growing up – they were to places to help us see the connection. They took us to Glacier National Park so that we could see the glaciers because they may not be there in 30 years, and they wanted us to be able to see that piece of the natural landscape that was being very drastically affected by change in climate. They took us to coral reefs, and I remember having discussions about why the coral is dying. So even as a young elementary school, middle school student, seeing face-to-face some of the ecological impacts of how humans are altering the climate system was, I think, very impactful.

Q. Moving to a lighter subject, what is your favorite place on Grounds?

A. I love the gardens on the east side of the Lawn, especially during the fall. They are a bit overgrown and full of pear and fig trees. There’s a lot of edible food growing around Grounds if you know where to look.

Q. Favorite place in Charlottesville?

A. Last year, I was training for a big bike trip and I loved escaping to the roads outside of the city. Almost any direction you leave Charlottesville, you end up in rolling hills with the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains. My personal favorite path was out down Garth Road – the strawberry cake at Hunt Country Market & Deli on Garth is the best you’ll find and a perfect post-ride indulgence.

Q. Looking back from your fourth year, what’s something you wish you could have told your younger self?

A. Don’t hesitate to do what you love. There is a lot of pressure to use college as a way to prepare for a job, but I would encourage students here to see it as an exploratory time to discover what gives you energy and feeds your mind. I spent a lot of time worrying about my major, and ended up trading my (very practical) civil engineering degree to study environmental science and global development. Without the switch, I don’t believe I would have found my way to become deeply involved in the youth climate movement, which has brought so much purpose to my studies.

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications