by Christine Nappi and Jilleen Barrett, Features Editor and Asst. A&E Editor
The environment wasn’t always at the forefront of Matt Sweeney’s mind. He always loved nature but never really dove into the environmental field until his freshman year of college when he began researching water quality in Van Cortlandt Park. Instantly, he was hooked and felt inspired to work with the environment. Sweeney has been able to turn his interest into a passion; a passion that led him to be the first Jasper to receive an honorable mention from the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation for his commitment to the environment.
In May, Sweeney, a junior civil engineering major, became the first Manhattan College student to be awarded the Udall Foundation honorable mention. The Udall Foundation is a government-run organization that recognizes college sophomores and juniors around the country who exemplify a commitment to the community, environment and public service with 50 scholarships and 54 honorable mention awards.
“Being the first to get it at Manhattan College is extremely humbling,” Sweeney said. “[It’s] just amazing because now we put Manhattan College on their radar, so I hope that this can allow more students to get awards from the foundation.”
Sweeney is actively involved on and off-campus with environmental volunteer work. He has committed a great deal of time at MC to environmentalism through his tenure as the vice president of the college’s chapter of the New York Water Environment Association and his recent term as the neighborhood relations committee chairman for student government. In fall 2018, he started the Jasper Environmental Coalition, an organization that binds all of the college’s environmental clubs together to collectively collaborate on issues. In addition, he serves as a student liaison to the Center for Urban Resilience Environmental Sustainability, a faculty group that promotes environmental research groups. He also hosts a talk show on WRCM called “Stoop Talk,” where he discusses community issues centered around environmentalism.
On top of his on-campus work, Sweeney dedicates his time to improving the environment surrounding the college. He is an active volunteer at Brust Park and has also participated in water quality research for Van Cortlandt Park Alliance, which sparked his passion for environmentalism, specifically regarding water quality. He cares deeply for this area of environmentalism and channeled his passion into his application.
“The Bronx especially has had trouble, with environmental neglect,” Sweeney said. “You need people to take an interest in their parks to keep them up, or else they’re just going to be trashed… [Brust Park does] some things as simple as planting some flowers or raking the leaves up, cleaning the trash, and just these little things make the park so beautiful.”
Before beginning his application process, Sweeney made sure to incorporate the Udall Foundation ideals of civility, consensus and integrity into his life and work with the environment. He began his application this past fall, which consisted of obtaining three recommendation letters from professors and community partners and writing eight short essays on topics ranging from environmentalism to leadership. The most crucial part of his application was writing an 800 word essay on one of the Udall brothers’ works. Sweeney chose to write about a letter that Stewart Udall wrote to his grandchildren, which explains how his generation ruined the environment and his grandchildren will have to face the impacts of that.
“The big focus of [his] letter was that it’s not impossible to fix our environment,” Sweeney said. “It’s exactly like my mantra with community work. New York City parks can only do so much, they have limited resources, you need local people to take value, realize the value in their local green spaces and really take care of them themselves. We have to be stewards of the environment, we can’t expect the government to do it for us.”
Sweeney is now considered to be a member of the Udall foundation network, which allows him to connect with other like-minded individuals who are passionate about the environment. He hopes to collaborate with them and has faith they will deliver the utmost service to their respective environmental community work.
“I really look forward to working with these people,” Sweeney said. “It brings you to a whole new level, you rise to a whole new level in the environmental field [and] that’s what I think is really cool about it… I think the greater purpose of these foundations is to bring together these great people because then, good ideas fly.”
Sweeney plans to continue his work on and off-campus in environmentalism and encourages others to do the same. Although cleaning up parks may not seem impactful, he notes that a little goes a lot way in terms of helping the environment and that the move towards a greener future all begins with awareness of the topic.
“Sometimes we get down about the individual impact we have, but I think awareness is a term that comes to mind,” Sweeney said. “Any event I do, I like to think opens people up to just thinking a little bit more about [the environment] in their daily lives. I don’t need everybody to become like a 100 percent committed environmentalist the next day… but I do want people to think about it, at least consider certain aspects of their life that can make them a little more earth-friendly.”
In addition to encouraging students to be more mindful about the environment, he also hopes to see more students apply for the Udall Foundation awards and other fellowship programs. He describes that simply applying for an award or fellowship will benefit students in some way, even if they don’t receive it. For him, applying for the Udall Foundation award pushed him out of his comfort zone in a positive direction. For students interested in applying, he recommends they begin the process early.
“I just really hope that me winning this opens the door for Manhattan College students and that it gives them a little motivation to do it,” Sweeney said. “I just want more Manhattan College students in general to go for fellowships because obviously, we can do it and I think we don’t give ourselves enough credit, we are a very quality student body.”
Sweeney is entering his senior year at the college and is exploring possibilities for his future, post-graduation. Although he may not know exactly what he plans to do, he hopes to incorporate urban planning and environmentalism in his future career and is considering applying for fellowships to continue helping the environment. He plans on taking environmentalism and his engineering skills with him wherever he goes and is considering holding a government role in the future in an effort to enact environmental change. For now, he is thrilled to receive the honorable mention and plans to stay active in his environmentalism efforts.
“[It’s] been immensely awesome that I was able to receive this honor, it recommits me to the cause,” Sweeney said. “This is just a reminder that those hundred people that got [the Udall award] are going to be immensely impactful. It’s just that one person, each one that does their own thing is just going to go to their different areas of the United States Government, nonprofits, whatever they are educational institutions, we’re all going to have an impact. So it definitely is just something to keep my fire lit [and] keep the passion going.”