Els Van Woert, a graduate student from the University of Vermont, spent her spring break week in Morro Bay, California, installing solar for low-income families with GRID Alternatives. She and her teammates are among six college groups participating in GRID's first annual Solar Spring Break this month. The program, a partnership with World Wildlife Fund, gives students the opportunity to get hands-on with renewable energy technology while helping local families in California and Colorado.
For Els, the week was full of laughs and eye-opening experiences on and off the roof. Having already worked for several years in wind energy before returning to school to focus on solar, she was excited to touch and feel what she's been advocating and going to school for.
“I’ve fallen in love with community solar and have studied policy and ecological mapping for where it can be best installed,” said Van Woert. “It’s so cool for me to fill in the knowledge gap about how systems are actually installed and see it in the flesh. I actually get it; that experience was so invaluable.”
Caitlin Fey, a student in the Program for the Environment at the University of Michigan, traveled to San Diego in early March with 11 other students and installed solar for the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians in Pauma Valley. In addition to the hands-on training, they stayed with the Tribe and had the opportunity to learn about Tribal culture and even make dream catchers with the Tribe's girls club.
"It was amazing how interconnected the community was," said Fey. "It seemed like everyone either had gotten solar or knew someone who was getting it, and they were all talking about how it was saving them money to buy clothes and school supplies for their kids."
The students in Fey and Van Woert's groups walked away with renewed enthusiasm for renewable energy and with gratitude for their time with the families and the knowledge gained during their trips. "Coming here I never expected to have as much fun combined with education in one experience," one UVM student wrote in a thank-you card. "I had a way better break here than I would have anywhere else."
But for Van Woert, it was even more than that. “I don’t know that there’s any classroom that’s facilitating such life changing conversations as what’s going on here,” she said. “It’s priceless.”