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‘For me, it was life-changing’

Chance Ratliff could conceivably divide his life into “before NES” and “after NES.”

Before attending the National Environmental Summit for High School Students at Catawba College in 2015, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life; his current best friend hadn’t arrived; and he didn’t have a clue about who ran Environmental Working Group (EWG) in Washington, D.C., or Yellowstone Forever in Wyoming.

Now, after attending the summit for two years, he has a sure knowledge of what he wants to do in his life and his career; his association with another summit participant has engendered a three-year friendship; and Heather White, formerly executive director of EWG and now president and CEO of Yellowstone Forever, has become a treasured mentor.

Ratliff will graduate this spring from Rowan-Cabarrus Community College’s Early College with an associate’s degree and hopes to enter Catawba College this fall as a junior to pursue a double major in environmental studies and political science. His goal is to become an advocate for environmentally friendly legislation, possibly working as a lobbyist or liaison between scientists and politicians.

In the meantime, he is applying to serve as a counselor for this year’s National Environmental Summit, scheduled for July 10-14, because he wants to help other students have the same transformative experience he had. “It’s totally unique,” he says. “Other schools may have conferences, but this is completely different. It gives you hands-on experience and puts you among people who think like you. You’re exposed to stuff you’re not going to get from a traditional conference.”

Hands-on learning helps students retain knowledge, Ratliff says. “I remember every detail about things I learned from the first year I went to the summit, but I can’t remember stuff from a course I took last semester.”

Ratliff calls his summit experience “life-changing.” He was propelled down “a path of wanting to be more environmentally sustainable and wanting to help make the world a better place,” he says. “It gave me the desire to make the world cleaner and greener and show how much one person can impact that.”

The summit also clarified his career path. “Without the summit, I’d probably still be wondering what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he says. “As soon as I went to the summit, I said, ‘This is it; this is what I’m going to do.’ I felt so connected with what we were doing there and what we were talking about.”

The relationships he developed at the summit have also had a positive impact on his life. Not only did he cultivate mentors at the event. (Heather White gave him her business card so he can consult with her on career matters.) He also made friends among his peers. “I’m still in contact with friends from the very first year I went,” Ratliff says. “We talk about environmental stuff all the time. Actually, I met my best friend there, and we’ve been best friends for three years now.”

Ratliff knows that the communication and collaboration skills he learned at the summit will be especially helpful in his chosen profession. “It made me realize how important communication and negotiation are in environmental issues,” he says. “Without them, we’re going to be at a standstill 100 years from now.”

You Can Help

You can play an important rolein the recruitment and funding of this year’s National Environmental Summit for High School Students July 10-14.

First, if you know high school students who would benefit from this intensive experience, we hope you will encourage them to take advantage of this opportunity. Students may go online at to register or to learn more.

Second, if you know of a person who would like to fund a scholarship or a business that would like to be a sponsor for the event, please contact Cathy Green at or 704.637.4727.

Many students have found the summit to be a transformative experience. Catawba faculty, Center for the Environment officials and professionals from the summit’s partners – Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Yellowstone Forever – guide participants through the exploration of innovative solutions to real-life environmental challenges.

“It is most gratifying to witness the growth the students experience as they approach environmental problems critically and creatively,” says John Wear, executive director of the Center for the Environment and the summit’s creator.

Students learn about wholistic thinking, collaboration and communication – skills that are vital to becoming an effective leader. “Chance Ratliff’s comments speak volumes about its impact on the participants,” Wear says. (See adjacent story.)

“I hope alumni and friends of the college will see this as an opportunity to change lives and build leaders,” Wear says. “It’s a noble investment in the future.”

The Center for the Environment at Catawba College is now accepting applications for its eighth annual National Environmental Summit for High School Students, scheduled for July 10-14.

The summit, “Redesigning Our Future,” is open to students from across the country who will be 14-17 years old by the time the summit begins. Those who complete the application process before May  1 will receive a discount of $90 from the student portion of the tuition cost. A limited amount of financial aid is also available.

The experience, intended to help students explore how they can use their interests and talents to make a difference in the world, is a partnership of the Center for the Environment, Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) of Colorado, Environmental Working Group (EWG) of Washington, D.C., and Yellowstone Forever of Wyoming. With the guidance of Catawba professors, Center staff and professionals from the other organizations, students discover how the knowledge and skills they learn at the summit can be used to address today’s environmental challenges.

03/26/18 by Juanita Teschner

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