UMass Boston

‘It’s everyone’s earth’: Erin Noël ’22 awarded Udall Scholarship for work on sustainability, environmental justice

12/13/2021| Gray Milkowski

Ask Erin Noël what her passions are, and she’ll tell you two things.

Erin Noël
Image By: Gray Milkowski and Angelina Welch

“ "We all have this earth and we all should be out here enjoying it." ”

First, there’s her love for the environment. In her fourth and final year as an environmental studies major, she has already travelled around the country researching the impacts of climate change. In her free time outside of her work, she’s also an avid hiker and kayaker.

Secondly, Noël is passionate about inclusion, specifically its importance in the outdoors, for people of color to be represented and encouraged to be in spaces that for a long time they have been underrepresented in. 

“It’s everyone’s earth,” she says adamantly.

It’s her enthusiasm for each that recently won her the prestigious Udall Undergraduate Scholarship, awarded by the Udall Foundation to one student from each state and territory every year who does exemplary work in tribal policy, native health care, or the environment.

Her research portfolio includes time at Stanford University studying the effects of climate change on human conflict, specifically whether increasingly hotter weather in regions closer to the equator contributes to increased levels of unrest. She has also spent two past summers as a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, she researched how farmers markets can bridge gaps in food instability, and how they can become more equitable spaces.

In addition to her academic credentials, she’ll tell you that it was her unwavering advocacy for environmental justice that made the difference when she applied. 

Noël recalled one sentence that she included in her scholarship application that summed it up well.

“I said that you never see a person like me in a Patagonia catalog,” she said, paraphrasing her own words. “And that’s wrong, because we all have this earth and we all should be out here enjoying it, like all of the people in the Patagonia catalog.”

It’s an anecdotal example, but one that she relives every time she goes on a hike or hops in a kayak – the outdoors tends to be a white space where people of color are underrepresented. It’s an issue that’s made headlines in the past, such as when the National Parks Service released data showing that just 23% of visitors to their parks were people of color, despite minorities making up 42% of the population.

Noël, who is of Haitian heritage, is quick to note the irony and injustice when it comes to such statistics, given that caring for the planet is something that her ancestors have been focused on long before it became a global priority.

“We were sustainable before sustainability was a trend,” Noël said with a smile. “Nature has a lot of significance in my culture … [you] grow up taking care of the earth because that’s what you have. You don’t necessarily have money; you only have your crops and the animals that you take care of.”

With tradition, representation, and her love for being outside in mind, Noël has her sights set on a career built around protecting the planet and making it a more inclusive place. She’s planning to pursue a dual PhD and J.D. program, knowing that becoming both a doctor and a lawyer will better position her to drive real progress in environmental justice.

“It’s following my passions,” she said. “Getting my law degree is something that I never saw myself not doing.”

It’s a high bar, but one that she notes is particularly meaningful because of the sacrifices that others made so that she could get there.

“My parents came here with nothing, and they became something, and for their child to be a doctor and a lawyer, that’s a lot in one generation … it memorializes their struggles, and everything they gave up for me to have a better opportunity.”