UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — With a dream of saving the world and inspiring others to do the same, Nora Van Horn, a senior triple majoring in philosophy, Chinese, and global and international studies, has used her education to create lasting change at Penn State.
A Loretto, Pennsylvania, native, Van Horn said she came to Penn State as a quiet first-year student. That year, she had a great conversation with a senior living on her floor in which she was given the following words of wisdom: “In college, it’s not about what you study, it’s about what you learn.” That’s how Van Horn’s journey began.
The Paterno Fellow and Schreyer Scholar took classes she thought she would enjoy. She started taking Chinese classes and felt really supported by the Department of Asian Studies. She also began taking philosophy classes and felt like she was learning a lot.
“Prior to that, I was taking a 300-person science class, but now I was getting so much information and content and felt like I was actually learning in my philosophy classes,” she said. “I had a similar experience with global and international studies, and the Chinese major paired nicely.”
During her first year at Penn State, Van Horn joined EcoReps, Penn State’s sustainability ambassadors, where she worked to encourage her fellow students to recycle and fought to reduce plastic waste.
“One of the things I was learning in my philosophy classes was to ask questions, to be inquisitive, to think critically about things until you can justify why they make sense. It’s learning how to argue,” she said. “There appeared to be this kind of discrepancy between what actually needed to be done to move everyone toward a more sustainable life and what was actually happening. Then I started to get motivated.”
From there, Van Horn got involved in the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA) and in the Student Sustainability Advisory Council (SSAC). As UPUA’s director of sustainability, she realized that she couldn’t do everything alone.
“They wanted me to work on sustainability, and my thought was, ‘When I leave this position, all of this information is just going to disappear,’” she said. “If I am going to all of these meetings alone, working alone and developing all of this expertise, the institutional knowledge will be lost really quickly.”
Within UPUA, Van Horn started working to create a Department of Sustainability. This meant bringing more people into the team, especially younger students who were passionate about specific facets of environmental sustainability.
“I wanted to share what I learned and help them go even further. I wanted to mentor and support them until they could complete projects that I couldn’t even dream of,” she said. “I want the next generation to be better in terms of environmental advocacy.”
Van Horn worked with past UPUA President Zachary McKay and Vice President Lexy Pathickal when they ran and helped them brainstorm how to fix the issues they felt existed on campus and within the group. One of the issues they homed in on was that UPUA was insular.
“There wasn’t a lot of outside student experts that could use UPUA’s processes to make a change, and Zach and Lexy agreed that it was a big issue,” she said. “They were very supportive of this idea of creating a department, so it was codified into the UPUA constitution and became an entity under the executive branch.”
Van Horn then decided to apply to the University Park Student Fee Board (UPSFB). She was motivated to apply because she was inspired by the green fees at other institutions. She wanted to create something to be used to advance environmental sustainability.
“I applied for the fee board in April 2020, and I worked pretty closely with the chair, Claire Kelling, over the summer to brainstorm what the fund would look like, how we would divide the rubric and grade these projects, and who we needed to bring into the room,” she said. “It was really cool because it was super participatory in nature. Fund board members looked over the material and provided constructive criticism. Also, students came in for public comment.”
During the meetings, students could offer feedback and say what they thought the fee board should do. The effort resulted in an annually accruing $250,000 Environmental Sustainability Fund, which will enable offices and organizations at Penn State University Park to apply for funding for projects that both promote on-campus sustainability efforts and positively impact the student experience.
“It was cool to see that the student government and UPSFB could be used for change. The students see that they can participate and share their feelings,” she said. “Participation is so important to move the institution forward. It can’t just be one student.”
In the summer of 2020, Van Horn also became a programming and student engagement intern for the Sustainability Institute at Penn State, a position she has held for the last year and a half. She plans a weekly speaker series on sustainability and oversees the Sustainability Institute’s student affiliate organization, the Council of Sustainable Leaders.
Van Horn has continuously tied her work inside and outside of the classroom to one another. She is currently working on an interdisciplinary honors thesis in philosophy and civic engagement. The writing experience has served as an opportunity to leverage the extracurricular experiences she’s had and apply critical theory to them. She said this has helped her understand these experiences on a deeper level and also embed lessons from "real-world experiences" in her academic work.
Van Horn has come a long way since her first year — she is on the 2021 Penn State Homecoming court. Van Horn said that her inspiration comes from realizing that these feelings of being small and not having a lot of power are not isolated to her.
“These feelings are very common among younger students. In these students, I see glimpses of myself that I identify,” she said. “I see that they are so smart, they know what they are talking about, and they have fantastic things to say, but they are insecure about their opinion.”
She believes that being outspoken is more than just advancing your own perspective. It is also how you can bring another student along with you and exchange knowledge and ideas.
“I see a lot of people who have really fantastic things to say that are nervous to say them. I get it,” she said. “We need to set the example that it is okay to speak up.”
Last spring, Van Horn taught BA 397 “Act Now for a Sustainable Future” through Students Teaching Students, a unique opportunity for students to create, plan and teach official courses at Penn State under the guidance of a faculty member. She said the goal of the three-credit course was to further the mission of the Sustainability Institute and encourage students to take actions for a sustainable world.
Van Horn said her liberal arts education has helped her to think critically about the systems of the world.
“My liberal arts education during my first year inspired me to ask, ‘Why is there so much focus on recycling and not on those who are polluting?’ Philosophy teaches me to ask those questions.”