An Icy Journey Gave Penn’s Leah Davidson a Worldly Perspective

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Media Contact:Katherine Unger Baillie | | 215-898-9194December 23, 2013

Leah Davidson, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, plans to pursue a career in business. But she wants to do so in an environmentally conscientious manner. So when, as a high school senior, she learned of an opportunity to visit one of the most untouched habitats on Earth, she jumped at the chance.

“The career path I want to follow is often criticized for what it does for the environment,” Davidson says. “I wanted to get the other side of the story and get a firsthand perspective on climate change. I wanted my conception of the environment to be personal.”

Davidson, who grew up in Sherbrooke, Quebec, says her trip to Antarctica “left an impression of the transformational effect of natural beauty,” shaping her perspective on the world and impressing upon her a need to take the message of the importance of environmental conservation further. Now, two years later, she continues to widely share her experiences of that unique place, while immersing herself in interdisciplinary studies and advocacy at Penn and beyond.

Davidson traveled to Antarctica with Students on Ice, an organization that leads educational trips to both the Arctic and Antarctic. She received a full scholarship from the Leacross Foundation to participate on the trip. Along with nearly 60 other high school students and about 30 staff, her two-week journey was packed with a variety of lessons about the Antarctic ecosystem, climate change and other threats and environmental leadership.

But the highlights of the trip were the on-the-ground experiences. Students performed science experiments to track climate conditions; observed penguins, seals, sea bird and whales and sketched, photographed and wrote about what they saw.

“We were all using our passions to reflect on what we were experiencing,” Davidson says.

While still on the trip, Davidson came up with the idea of anthologizing some of the participants’ artistic and literary creations. She collected artwork, photography, poetry and journal entries from fellow Students on Ice travelers, compiling them in a book titled Antarctica: To Be Inspired. She raised enough money—with know-how gained through Penn’s Social Entrepreneurship Movement—from individuals and companies, including Patagonia, Sierra Club and Lowepro, to publish 500 copies. Proceeds from sales of the book are going to the Students on Ice Foundation, which provides scholarship for students to join the expeditions.

Davidson is also using the book as an educational tool for her latest venture, a movement called Act for Antarctica. Launched last March, it aims to educate elementary and high school students about the value of the polar regions. Davidson herself has given more than 50 presentations at schools in the U.S. and Canada. One of the campaign’s goals is to inspire 1,000 distinct actions that make some headway in protecting the environment. Each school she has visited has taken some step—from pledging to turn off the lights in unused rooms, to centering entire science units around the book—to demonstrate their commitment to environmental protection.

Act for Antarctica aims to generate these 1,000 acts by March 1, 2014. Davidson feels confident that they’ll make it there.

Since her trip to the southernmost continent, Davidson has participated in numerous other efforts to broaden the horizons of herself and others. She was selected as one of just 60 young people worldwide from an applicant pool of 1,000 to attend this past summer’s Millennium Youth Camp in Finland, where students engage in studies of and research in mathematics, environmental science and technology. And at Penn, Davidson pursues her interests in social entrepreneurship and environmental stewardship through involvement in the Green Campus Partnership’s Eco-Reps program, the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, the Intercultural Leadership Program, the Urban Nutrition Initiative and iCare, a program to support children adopted from China.

Penn’s emphasis on interdisciplinary studies suits Davidson particularly well; she is currently working on the launch of an electronic journal to showcase sustainability in the humanities, and plans to pursue an independent study in the spring semester on environmental writing under Bethany Wiggin, an associate professor and undergraduate chair in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures. All the while, Davidson keeps up a healthy load of Wharton business courses.

“I have a lot of interests,” she says, “and Penn offers so many great opportunities to pursue them.”

Gleaning knowledge from so many areas has left Davidson with a keen sense of accountability over her actions, and a compulsion to pass on her passion.

“What stands out to me is that I am one of the only people of my generation who has been to Antarctica,” says Davidson. “A lot of the responsibility to protect its environment will fall on our shoulders.”