ORANGE PARK – Recent Ridgeview High graduate Michael Chen will soon be attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his recent Earth Day Scholarship will help pay for the costs.
Chen has been active in Clay County environmental advocacy for years and his actions were noticed by the National Society of High School Scholars after he applied for the scholarship. Earth Day Scholarship winners are, according to the NSHSS, students that are passionate about the environment and have helped to either raise awareness or actively protect the earth through projects or activities in their school or community. Chen has done both.
“I think that you’re really able to inspire people in a multitude of ways and that’s what this has all been about,” Chen said. “If you can convince someone to go out in nature and experience its beauty, you can convince them to preserve it.”
Chen has been trying to do that since his sophomore year, although his environmental activism stretches to even earlier than that. About halfway through his sophomore year, Chen and two of his friends, Alaa Osman and Madison Yonash, started the Earth Club at Ridgeview. Chen and this club have organized more than 20 clean-ups throughout Clay County and Jacksonville, it’s worked with the St. Johns RiverKeepers, the Green Girls and the Audubon Society, which is the organization that helped the Earth Club adopt a nature preserve now known as the Crosby Sanctuary.
The Earth Club has collected invasive species around Ridgeview, installed recycling bins, installed a refillable water bottle water fountain at the school and purchased and installed motion-activated cameras for the Crosby Sanctuary. The club has been to Tallahassee twice to speak with legislators about Clay County environmental hurdles like algae bloom in the St. Johns River, too.
“When we initially started the club, our teacher [Donna Foley], said it had been tried multiple times in the past without success, so it was disheartening,” Chen said. “She said people tried it and that students just weren’t interested. So, when we started the Earth Club, we knew we had to find some way to make it interesting.”
Chen said the club’s lifespan, completed projects and members indicate success to him. The secret was finding a way to make it fun and interesting in a way that inspired not just one grade of students, but all grades of students, Chen said. The club today consists of students from all grade levels at Ridgeview and will continue to work after Chen and his friends toward the next step in their lives.
For Chen, that will be MIT.
Chen will pursue a degree in electrical engineering and computer science with a potential minor in political science. He plans to merge his passion for the environment with engineering.
“There’s one guy from Florida at MIT that I’ve met and he started an environmental action group so I’ll probably join that,” Chen said. “They use engineering to help out the environment. For example, they work with a lot of mining companies to improve the process and make it more environmentally sound.”
Chen said there’s also an advocacy side to environmental groups at MIT that march in the name of finding solutions to climate change. While his work in Clay County is soon coming to a close, there’s still one major project of Chen’s yet to come to life.
“We were planning this Earth Day event where we’d go to Ridgeview Elementary and set up cool booths and have a parade throughout the entire school day,” Chen said. “Everything was going to be environmental-themed and it would be fun and educational at the same time.”
Chen said sculptures made of recycled water bottles would have been there as would other fair-like staples like face painting. The club made all of these plans but soon realized they needed more funding. Chen and the club sold food from his parents’ restaurant in Green Cove Springs’ Spring Park during the annual CalaVida festival to raise money. They raised about $1,000 and spent some of that on a refillable water bottle fountain the school needed.
Needing more money, Chen looked into grants. It was in this search that he stumbled upon the Earth Day Scholarship that is now helping pave the way for him at MIT. That doesn’t mean the Earth Club’s celebration isn’t happening though.
“Unfortunately, because of the coronavirus, we weren’t able to carry out our plans,” Chen said. “We have, though, already picked out and decided who will lead the Earth Club next year and we’re already talking about how to continue the plans and make the celebration happen next year.”
That’s what the Earth Club and Chen’s passion for the environment is all about, he said.
“The environment is something that should be argued over or debated about at all,” Chen said. “No matter what you’re doing, if you help the environment, you’re helping the world and that’s what we need to remember. There’s a responsibility for our generation because our generation will feel the effects of things people are doing right now.
“It’s important to inspire our generation to be invested and care about it. We’ll be the ones to have the opportunity to make a lasting impact.”