Right now in Missoula, there are myriad conversations about new ways to strengthen connections between our vibrant community and the University of Montana. Yet today, many nonprofits already connect with UM students, and together we work in concert on some of the thorniest challenges of our time.

This spring, nearly 20 University of Montana students participated in the Climate Change Studies service learning internship, aiming to connect with local climate leaders, learn about sustainability past the doors of the classroom, and lend a hand.

The director of the program, professor Nicky Phear, has created opportunities for students to take action and gain professional experience by interning with an array of nonprofit, public and private sector organizations.

When asked about her inspiration to start the service learning course, Phear said, “Climate change can be a topic that is so big in scope and it gives students experience addressing it in real time in the real world with others who are grappling with it.”

This internship program can be particularly impactful for UM students as it prepares and connects the next generation of sustainability leaders.

Interns are gaining experience with a range of local organizations. The internship is applicable across majors, so interns often apply their primary academic interest to a particular category of sustainability. From local climate action with Climate Smart Missoula,sustainable transportation with Free Cyclesor reducing waste with Home ReSource, UM students learn how our community works to become more sustainable and we assist with these efforts.

Here’s a bit about my service learning experience and a sampling from a few of my fellow interns.

I interned with Climate Smart Missoula. With aspirations of becoming an environmental journalist, I attended Climate Smart events and wrote for their blog.

At first, I was intimidated at the prospect of interviewing community members, but as the internship progressed, it became easier. Throughout my experience with Climate Smart, I was blown away by all the work and connections they foster for local climate action and inspired by how supportive Missoula is.

I feel more connected and empowered to make change. I’ve learned how to communicate with others on the importance of reducing our carbon footprint through zero waste initiatives like Missoula’s Zero by Fifty, expanding bike infrastructure, and growing our urban forests.

The internship gave me an opportunity to create real journalism, inspired me to write about climate change, and gave me direction to focus on waste reduction. I wrote a piece on the zero waste efforts at Home ReSource and their program educating fifth-graders about waste (ZWAP).

It‘s awesome to see the effect of educating children early about what happens when they put things into the trash can!

Marin Carlson, a sophomore and human biology major interned with the University of Montana Dining Gardens.The gardens provide food for the campus cafeteria, The Food Zoo.

When asked about the impact of the garden on campus, Carlson said, “It promotes personal as well as environmental health, and it encourages people to know more about where their food is coming from and how much work happens before food hits the grocery store.”

Carlson spent her time planting, weeding and learning sustainable agriculture methods. “Admittedly, it’s a lot of work, but a morning in the garden beats a morning in the classroom any day,” said Carlson.

Brett Kaplan, a freshman and resource conservation major, interned with Environment Montana,where he focused on environmental advocacy.

He spent a lot of time in the backcountry reaching out to groups of outdoor recreation enthusiasts regarding the need for political action on climate change.

When asked about the highlight of his experience, Kaplan said: “I found that the best part of my internship was realizing the communal support for climate action in Missoula. It was a great reminder for younger folks wanting to promote sustainability and address the climate crisis, that we aren’t alone in the battle!”

We students were inspired by our host organizations and by Professor Phear to believe that a more sustainable future is in reach if our community fosters engagement and connection across sectors.

My experience with Climate Smart served as a reminder that anyone can help make our community more sustainable if you follow your passion and inspiration.

Other monumental social movements that changed the course of history have been championed by young people. Currently, we're seeing passionate students around the country find their voice and stand up for the change they want to see in society such as the movement to secure a legal right to a safe climateor March for Our Lives.

Missoula is a wonderfully supportive community, and I feel lucky to gain a better understanding for why that is and how to be a part of it. From the support of my peers and community mentors, I’m inspired to promote sustainability and together create positive change. And during my final class period, I was inspired by this quote:

"If you’re looking for your calling, you will find it at the place where your greatest joy intersects with the world’s deepest needs.” --words of Fredrick Buechner adapted by Katherine Dean Moore

Sydney Lang is the 2018 Climate Smart Missoula service learning intern through the Climate Change Studies program at the University of Montana.

This Sustainable Missoulacolumn comes to you weekly via Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource. Today is “Missoula Gives” – a 24-hour day of giving for community nonprofits. If you like this column, consider a donation to either or both organizations, and they’ll keep the articles and inspiration coming. Climate Smart Missoula Givesand/or Home ReSource Missoula Gives.

Upcoming sustainability events:

May 4: Missoula Gives, a community philanthropy event hosted by the Missoula Community Foundation through 10 p.m. on May 4.

May 9: Wildflower Walk with Milltown State Park staff and the Native Plant Society at Milltown State Park from 5:30-6:30 pm.

May 12. Seed Saver class with Five Valleys Seed Library. 2-4 p.m. at the Missoula Public Library.

May 18: Endangered Species Day Film Festival, hosted by Endangered Species Coalition & International Wildlife Film Festival at the Roxy Theater from 6-9 p.m.