Our Stories

Passion for the Environment Drives Willamette Student

Laura Westmeyer '09 is leaving Willamette with a pretty impressive résumé - from environmental advocacy in the Andes Mountains to running a campus bike shop to promoting urban foraging to analyzing transportation alternatives that will help create a carbon-neutral campus. She's even helping develop a video that will introduce new Willamette students to the concept of sustainability.

The international studies major spent her senior year managing Willamette's Bike Shop, a student-run program that helps students, professors and university employees swap four wheels for two. Students loan bicycles without charge, build bikes from recycled parts, make repairs, pump tires and teach bicycle maintenance - with the goal of keeping cars off the road.

"When I got my first road bike as a sophomore, my world expanded," says Westmeyer, who became so enthusiastic she joined Salem's Vision 2020 program to work on bicycle/pedestrian issues. "I got to know the geography of the countryside and even met people at stop lights. You miss a lot in a car. When gas prices rose and Salem cut its Saturday bus service, transportation became an equity issue. Bikes provide low-cost alternatives for people to get to work, while protecting the environment."

Westmeyer got her start in environmental advocacy in La Oroya, a small mountain town in Peru, where she worked with a lawyer to protect local families from pollution. The smelter at a lead mine pumped toxic chemicals into the air, leaving children with ten times the maximum healthy limit of lead levels in the blood.

"Children were experiencing neurological problems and stunted growth," Westmeyer says, "but everyone in the town was economically connected to the mine, so it was difficult to protest the conditions." Her awareness activities with international organizations led to the site being listed as one of the ten most polluted towns in the world - and new regulations. Now enforced regulations filter pollutants and educate the community, creating a safer work and town environment.

At Willamette, Westmeyer served as president of the Terra Environmental Dorm, a residential community that puts sustainable practices into effect. As president of the Environmental Community Outreach Society (ECOS), she led the focus on urban foraging. The group scouts for edible plants in the local community and has added to a database of public lands from Eugene to Portland that offer edibles. They also added their own edibles to the landscape, planting walnuts, grapes, figs, pears and plums in public places.

As a member of Willamette's Sustainability Council, Westmeyer wanted to look at the bigger picture. "As a council, we're trying to institutionalize change," she says. She helped analyze transportation alternatives for the College Climate Action Plan on campus, with a goal of making the university carbon-neutral by 2020. She organized trips to restore native habitat at the university-owned research forest, coordinated films and discussions about sustainability, and is helping develop an orientation video for all incoming freshmen, letting new students know how they can become involved in sustainability at Willamette.

In between classes and volunteer activities, Westmeyer did community research on agriculture and tourism with a land use consulting company, and she wrote her thesis on the conversion of local farms to vineyards. "With the rising prestige of Oregon pinot noir, traditional farms - and in some cases, even old growth forests - are being plowed under to make way for grapevines," she says. "I wanted to look at how we might slow down the negative consequences of increased viticulture while maximizing the economic benefits that wine tourism can provide the region."

This summer Westmeyer is working for a consulting agency on land-use planning and development research. Then she is headed to Patagonia in South America, where she hopes to build windmills and possibly work on environmental science projects for the Santa Cruz government in Argentina. Wherever she ends up, sustainability will likely play a part: "You can create change and have a good time doing it."