News Article

MIT Planetary Health Ambassador Brings Students Together to Discuss the Effects of Environmental Change on Health and Well-Being


May 02, 2024

L-R: Nina Lytton, Cindy Xie, Kym Ragusa, and Nicholas Collura


“For our generation, it’s impossible not to think about climate change.”


On April 9, MIT students from across campus gathered to write stories, poems, and share their thoughts, feelings, and ideas about environmental change and its relationship with their mental health and holistic sense of well-being.

The event, fashioned by Cindy Xie ’24, is just one of many discussions held over the past two years aimed at addressing the social and cultural implications of the global climate crisis on MIT students. Xie, who is also working on a masters in city planning, didn’t begin her college career thinking she would create such events. But, when she had the opportunity to become a Planetary Health Alliance campus ambassador, she saw it as a way to work with like-minded MIT students on a critical matter. 

“For our generation, it’s impossible not to think about climate change. I began thinking in terms of what we need to do to affect collective action because that’s the ultimate thing that we're going to need to solve this issue,” says Xie.

Xie’s goal is to create a space that explores themes of care and community alongside discussions of the climate crisis. Events over the past year have included conversations about scientific enterprises and their integration with other ideas.

After holding a Planetary Health Student Club mixer event in the spring of 2023 that involved several environmental and health-focused organizations on campus, Xie conceived the idea to hold a series of events centered on dialogue and cultural transformation. Xie joined forces with Nina Lytton, interfaith chaplain and a mentor to several student communities at MIT, to organize the mixer in spring 2023. She also turned to Nicholas Collura, program director of Radius and a chaplain in MIT's Office of Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life, to develop her ideas further.

The group organized three events – “Spiritual Care and Repair for People and Planet,” “Indigenous Land, Peoples, and Bodies,” and “Water is Life,” with numerous MIT thought leaders involved and many students in attendance.

Lytton says, “Cindy has a community-centric viewpoint. Her vision is to build a better future through interdisciplinary collaboration and grassroots involvement. Cindy is often thinking, ‘How do we solve this problem at the system level?’ She knows that nothing connects people emotionally like art.”

April was Earth Month, so it was important for Xie to hold the writing event then with additional support from the MIT Climate Nucleus. Twenty-five students attended the workshop “Climate Writing Through Personal Narrative.” Xie worked with MIT faculty member Kym Ragusa, a writer and filmmaker, to design and facilitate the event. After an opening discussion led by Ragusa and 20 minutes of writing, students shared their work and offered feedback to each other.

“Writing is personal and can help with managing emotions. It’s very much a personal journey. Writing helps manage stress. Part of writing is learning how to handle situations. It can be hard to find your way. How do you bring in the personal to writing when there is so much at stake? Multiple elements go into your narrative and it can be emotional,” says Ragusa.

Group shot of students at workshop

Collura says, “Radius aims to challenge uncritical narratives of progress. As a sponsor organization of this series, we're asking: is the technocratic paradigm enough? Whether we're inflicting harm on the earth or trying to save it, do we have an inflated sense of our domination over it? With this writing exercise, we saw how storytelling can serve not only as a way of speaking but also as a way of listening. Listening to the earth, listening to our own emotions around the climate crisis—feelings of grief and anxiety, anger and hope, alienation and belonging.” Adding, “By creating community among concerned students, Cindy has inspired us to live in a more communitarian way in relationship to the earth, as well.”

“When you get together across the lines of difference, everything changes because you get different perspectives and possibilities. The emergent community shows the power and importance of community building, emotional support, and leadership mentoring,” says Lytton.

Niko Odhiambo ’25, who has read poems—including their own—to kick off several of the events says, “I became involved because the community at these events offers space to think critically about the roles we play within and outside of the MIT curriculum. It brings a grounding sense of humanity to break up the fast-paced nature of this environment. I liked people’s willingness to share their thoughts and experiences. It shows there is trust and safety between us. I was pleasantly surprised by how powerful the group found it.” 

“It’s great to hear people say they feel more refreshed or hopeful, for instance, after attending these events—or that the events provide a space to approach these issues through a new light. I’ve come to believe that cultural change starts through these moments of connection and reflection,” says Xie. “It will be interesting to see where this leads next.”


Have a question about this article?

Contact the Division of Student Life's Communications Office