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Meet Christina Cilento

Former ASG president heads to Laos as a Luce Scholar after graduation

Christina Cilento
Christina Cilento

Christina Cilento couldn’t have imagined what lay ahead as she wandered around the Northwestern University freshman activities fair with the sole intent of joining an environmental organization.

Cilento, a senior who recently completed her term as Associated Student Government (ASG) president, had to be convinced to join the organization at that fair. By the end of her freshman year, she was vice president of ASG’s sustainability committee — which was just the first step in a Northwestern journey of professional and personal environmental activism. 

Cilento, shortly after graduating in June, will travel to Vientiane, Laos, for 13 months to study the impact of climate change on South Asia as a 2017-18 Luce Scholar. Along the way, she helped create an environmental magazine, took on a key communications role in Northwestern’s Office of Sustainability (sustainNU) and reported on the Paris climate conference in December 2015.

“It was the most informative experience in terms of what I want to do with climate policy,” said Cilento of Paris. “I saw firsthand the inequalities that exist between major nations dictating climate policy and low-lying nations in Asia, who bear the brunt of climate change.”

Cilento will soon see the effects of climate change in Asia up close and personal. She will work with a non-profit, Village Focus International, on land rights and forestry management in Vientiane, the capitol, which sits at the very edge of Laos’ southern border with Thailand.

“I decided to work there to focus on deforestation, which is an aspect of climate change that I haven't studied as much, and one that's incredibly relevant in the Asian context,” Cilento said.

Cilento ParisCilento at the Paris Climate Conference in December 2015. 
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The first to admit that much of her extracurricular involvement came about somewhat randomly, Cilento took full advantage of one opportunity after another at Northwestern to follow her passions and satisfy what evolved into an insatiable drive to better the world around her.

“By the time I was a junior, I realized ASG was a great way to pursue change on campus, which is what made me run for president,” she said.

Advancing bike safety in the fall — by offering bike helmets for free to students — was among her proudest accomplishments at ASG, and it led to something bigger and better.

“That turned into the University now offering free bike helmets, lights and locks to any students, faculty or staff who register their bikes,” she said. “That’s incredible.”

She also helped launch a program that promotes gender inclusivity by offering free menstrual products in men’s and women’s restrooms around campus, as well as a “course affordability” initiative that allocates $10,000 for ASG to buy popular textbooks and school supplies and offer them to low-income students at a lending library.

Well before her presidency, Cilento created an environmental website, In our Nature Magazine, with a pair of friends. Then a sophomore, Cilento said she co-founded the site to fill a need for environmental reporting on campus.

She took it a step further her junior year at sustainNU, where she went from intern to Interim Sustainability Communications Manager while the office filled a full-time staffing gap.

$10,000earmarked for an ASG course affordability initiative started under Cilento's leadership.

“Today, I’m used to meeting with University administrators and being the only student in the room, but back then I would go to staff meetings representing sustainNU and it felt a bit weird,” Cilento said. “But it gave me a great opportunity to use my creativity with writing and graphic design. It was fun and a good leadership experience.”

And last summer, she completed a communication internship at Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) in Chicago. The experience solidified her interest in environmental law, which she hadn’t considered before then.

“I’m hoping to go to law school at some point in the future,” Cilento said. “Seeing the work ELPC’s lawyers do and the success they had as a non-profit really inspired me to take that path.”

Unabashedly certain that climate change is the critical issue of our age, Cilento is serious about doing her part to mitigate the catastrophic effects.

Going to Laos is just the beginning.

“We need to listen to the people who are facing the worst impacts of climate change,” she said. “If they’re calling for limiting the rise in average global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius, then we need to re-evaluate and really put the pedal to the metal.” 

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