students sit outside on grass in circlesPublished March 28, 2024

Jayden Wan was almost done with seventh grade when the pandemic hit. He transitioned pretty smoothly to distance learning, spending his free time playing video games and talking with friends. It wasn’t until he was in eighth grade and going into high school when he realized that his first year back to in-person learning would be his freshman year at a whole new school.

After talking to his parents, he learned about the Youth Climate Ambassadors program, a unique opportunity that empowers high school students to take climate action into their own hands. Though he didn’t know much about the climate crisis, he saw the opportunity to gain valuable skills – and a $500 stipend – and decided to apply.

“As I went into the program, I realized that this was something that was not only relevant to me but also important on a global scale,“ he reflected. “Not only did they help introduce me to this idea of environmental advocacy or changemaking, but I also think it helped me strengthen my communication skills and go from someone who could be pretty reclusive to someone who is actively and passionately communicating about topics that are influencing all of our lives.”

Through the program, Jayden participated in workshops, retreats, and virtual lessons to deepen his understanding of sustainability and climate action. He also learned how the climate crisis cannot be fixed by one person alone.

“There is a lot that we can do, and there’s a lot that we can do as a group,” Jayden reflected. “This climate crisis, climate problem, climate issue is not just an individual activity, it’s not something that just an individual can solve. It affects everyone. And everyone has the opportunity to make a change.”

As part of the program, Jayden received mentorship to develop his skills in communication, problem-solving, data collection, and collaboration. At the end of the program, he collaborated with a group of other students to design and implement a community impact project to drive change in San Mateo County.

“One of the parts that I really enjoyed is the community impact project,” shared Jayden. “It gave students what I would call real-world experience.” 

The program also helped him collaborate with other students on group projects, which he didn’t get much experience in during distance learning. The group work introduced him to a different level of responsibility, collaboration, and initiative where he was able to develop his leadership and communication skills. “Those skills have been applicable in my high school career, the other extracurricular work that I do, all facets of my life,” recounted Jayden.

One idea that Jayden took from the program is the power of youth voice. As he talked to local professionals, district staff, and school board members for his community impact project, he saw how much they valued his input and, when he urged the school district to adopt sustainable practices, they listened.

students present to other students“If you’re in an educational system, a lot of the input that school boards get may come from parents and teachers, but I think oftentimes student input can be very valuable,” shared Jayden. “And I think that’s what I learned, that a lot of the change we envision can happen if we just speak up and express our opinions."

YCA also helped plant the seed of pursuing a career in something related to the environment, though it wasn’t until he attended Burlingame High School’s architectural design program that he solidified his interest in urban design. 

“The way I like to phrase it is, I’m passionate about both the built and the natural environment, and I feel like urban design is really the intersection of that,” shared Jayden. “Whatever career path I go into, I want to be able to make positive change on whatever community surrounds me or even on a global scale.”

After completing the program, Jayden looked for other ways to continue learning and impacting his community. The following summer, he attended a summit held by the Silicon Valley Youth Climate Action (SVYCA), which works with local governments to pursue decarbonization through fossil fuel divestment, building electrification, and electric vehicle accessibility, and has been a member of SVYCA ever since. Jayden also helped organize the County Office of Education’s Environmental Youth Leadership Network summit in Fall 2023 and facilitated workshops about policy advocacy and the power of youth voice.

Reflecting on his experience, Jayden shared that the YCA program is a good fit for all students. “This isn’t the kind of topic where you need to be super well-versed in the workings of climate change. This is something that you can approach just from the perspective of anyone who is living in the world, recognizing that this is something greater than yourself,” shared Jayden. “Sometimes I think we put boundaries on ourselves because of our age and experience and knowledge, but I think that if you recognize something worth fighting for, I’d say go for it.