Only one college in the nation had three students selected to be 2009 Udall Scholars this year: Whitman College.

And this was accomplished during the prestigious Morris K. Udall Foundation’s most competitive year to date since its inception in 1996, according to information from the foundation.

Whitman recipients are: Lisa Curtis, Elena Gustafson and Camila Thorndike, all juniors.

Mia Ibarra, Udall’s scholarship program manager, said the foundation’s selection committee reviewed 515 applications, a significant increase over last year, and selected 80 students from 66 colleges and universities.

The 14-member independent review committee picked the scholars based on their commitment to careers in the environment, health care or tribal public policy, and their leadership potential and academic achievement.

“We're thrilled, of course, and deeply honored that the Udall recognized three of our emerging scholars,” said Keith Raether, Whitman’s director of fellowships, scholarships and grants. “Camila, Elena and Lisa are remarkable students and tireless advocates for the environment. Their ethical awareness is exemplary, and public service is already a way of life for them. The awards also say something essential about Whitman, its commitment to environmental studies and humanities, and the life of active learning that occurs here,” he said.

When the Udall committee pored over the applications, this is some of what they saw in the three Whitman recipients’ documentation:

Recipient Lisa Curtis ’10

A politics and environmental studies major, from Alameda, Calif., Curtis wrote in her Udall application that her career goal was to be “an advocate for the poor and the environment.” She wrote that she hoped “to expand the use of renewable, off-the-grid energy sources to improve lives in developing countries.”

In high school, she was the founder of the Cans for Habitat Recycling Club and was a volunteer dinner chef for the Alameda Homeless Shelter, among other activities. As a Whitman student, she started a youth program in Walla Walla to inspire local youth to develop programs to change their community, and she organized a low-income, predominately Latino neighborhood to bring a greater police presence and unite against crime. She also spent time in Washington D.C. planning a campaign to educate children about climate change and spearheaded the pilot program for the Kick the Carbon Habit Education Campaign (KCHEC) in Washington D.C. schools.

During an internship in western Kenya, Curtis saw the hardship endured by women who spent hours each day gathering firewood – risking snakebites, arrest and even rape – because they couldn’t afford a $1,140 “biodigester” unit that would turn cow dung and other organic material into a cooking fuel source. So, with the support of co-workers and the local community, she developed and built a low-cost version of a “biodigester” that cost $50. And then she wrote grants and received funding to build 20 units for communities surrounding the rainforest.

Recipient Elena Gustafson ’10

An environmental humanities major, from Los Alamos, N.M., Gustafson wrote that her “ultimate career goal is to expand urban and rural community-centered environmental education, eventually through the integration of outdoor and environmental education into public school policy.” She now leads environmental and outdoor education programs “while raising general awareness through published writing.”

In high school she was a peer counselor and volunteer for service projects and received Girl Scouts highest award, the Gold Award, because of a 50-plus hour community service project. At Whitman, she is founder and coordinator of the Youth Adventure Program; Earth Day and Cool the Schools Coordinator for the Campus Climate Challenge; communications director for Youth Development Initiatives; co-founder and community outreach leader for Coalition for a Green Community; student teacher for Environmental Education for Kids; volunteer reader for the Story Time Project; volunteer mentor for the college’s mentor program in Walla Walla’s elementary schools and middle school; trip leader for the Whitman College Outdoor Program; and GreenArt Week Organizer for the Campus Greens environmental project. She also has worked as a research entomologist at Valles Caldera National Preserve and been a canoe guide at the Northern Lakes Girl Scout Canoe Base.

Recipient Camila Thorndike ’10

An environmental humanities major, from Ashland, Ore., Thorndike wrote in her Udall application that she wanted “to work to create just, ecologically sound solutions to water allocation problems.” She hopes to work as an environmental conflict mediator, helping to shape relationships “between people and ecosystems to help communities in the American West adapt to the challenges posed by climate change and population growth.”

In high school, among other activities, she was co-founder and president of the school’s Amnesty International Club and was an invitee to the Global Young Leaders Conference in Washington D.C. At Whitman, she is the co-president, secretary and policy-focus co-chair of the Campus Climate Challenge; newsletter editor and conference co-chair for the Cascade Climate Network; creator and presenter of lesson for the Ashland Middle School’s visiting educator and climate change science and solutions program; founder and organizer of the Whitman Campaign for an equitable U.S. Farm Bill; team member of the Student-Faculty Sustainability Coordinator Hiring Committee; student representative of the external review panel for the Whitman Environmental Studies Program and co-leader of “The Injustice of Climate Change” Symposium on campus.

Each Udall scholarship provides up to $5,000 for educational expenses. This prestigious scholarship has supported more than 1,000 Udall Scholars since the first awards in 1996.

The Morris K. Udall Foundation is an independent federal agency that was created by Congress in 1992 to honor U.S. Rep. Morris “Mo” Udall's legacy of public service. Udall, an Arizona Congressman for three decades, championed environmental causes and the rights of Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

The 2009 Udall Scholars will assemble in August, in Tucson, Ariz., to receive their awards and meet policymakers and community leaders in environmental fields, tribal health care, and governance.

- Virginia Grantier