“In some ways I feel like such a grandma now, but I think I’ve figured out what makes me happy,” Elana Sulakshana, CC ’17, muses as we huddle around a table at Cafe 212. Statements of this sort tend to elicit jealousy in me, but there is a modesty and spontaneity to the way Sulakshana delivers these words that makes me feel happy for her and hopeful for Columbia and the world at large as we usher in our controversial new president. (We arranged to meet the evening after the election.)
While she’s not happy with the election results, Sulakshana thinks it will be possible to effect change under the incoming administration. “A climate change denier is now going to be the president of this country. That’s terrifying...But I also think that it opens up this opportunity to do really important work at the local level. Cities and states and towns and communities. And that’s honestly where I think change is gonna come from, when people come together on this local level and develop solutions.”
For Sulakshana, this work lies in climate change adaptation and relocation. She spent six weeks in Anchorage last summer interning for the nonprofit Alaska Institute for Justice on a Global Fellows and Sustainable Development grant that she received through the Earth Institute. The organization works with several Alaskan Native villages that are experiencing flooding and erosion problems, collaborating with community members and writing reports in order to obtain funding to help them move.
“Alaska is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the globe, because it’s in the Arctic, so the impacts are felt so deeply on these communities. Their traditional hunting and fishing practices are being challenged by disappearing sea ice and changing migratory patterns, and storms are eroding their land on the coast and the islands,” Sulakshana tells me. Plus, communities affected by these changes cannot simply pack up and leave. Relocation “can be a decades-long process” and these communities “just aren’t receiving enough investment in the present.”
A double major in Sustainable Development and History, Sulakshana is writing her senior thesis on investment in those communities that opt to relocate. Sulakshana pursues these interests not just in an academic capacity but as an activist too. She has organized with Columbia Divest for Climate Justice for more than three years and has “been everywhere from meetings with President Bollinger and the board of trustees to sleeping in Low Rotunda during the sit-in last semester.”
Otherwise, Sulakshana’s life at Columbia sounds unsurprisingly outdoorsy and chill. She leads bike trips for first years through the Columbia Outdoor Orientation Program (COÖP). “It’s just the best way to get off campus and explore.” She lived in Greenborough for two years. This semester she enrolled in a hiking PE class and ran her first half marathon. She loves being outside (“I really really love mountains”); biking through the city (“scary but so fun”); and cooking (“I’m vegetarian. Never eaten meat in my life....And I’m trying to be vegan, but fail at that”).
When I ask if there’s anything she wants to add, she pauses thoughtfully. “One thing I really want to do is go to these freegan meetups, they have them in New York, so I can learn how to dumpster dive, if you wanna come with me. Once a month they have introductory sessions where they give a talk and they give you tips on how to do it.”
As for what happens next after Columbia, she laughs and says, “The one thing I know is that I don’t want to live in New York City.”
— Virginia Ambeliotis