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Undergraduates honored with Rock Ethics Institute 2016 Stand Up Award

April 19, 2016

Penn State students Alanna Kaiser, Nathan Larkin, and Jaden Rankin-Wahlers are being honored respectively for their work in social & environmental justice; organizing efforts to address climate change; and combatting stigmas associated with poverty and homelessness.

The Penn State Rock Ethics Institute created the Stand Up Award in 2008 to honor Penn State undergraduate students who have the courage and fortitude to take an ethical stand for a person, cause or belief and thereby demonstrate ethical leadership. You can learn more about each awardee and their story by watching their Stand Up Award Video Story.

“The Stand Up Award honors students who act on their ethical beliefs and principles, who stand up as ethical leaders in our community,” said Michael D. Burroughs, associate director of the Rock Ethics Institute. “The Rock Ethics Institute is proud to recognize these students; we are inspired by their stories and aim to support them as they continue to develop their projects."

At the age of 15, Alanna Kaiser, founding member and vice-president ofFossil Free PSU, had the opportunity to participate in an environmental leadership program with the Clearwater organization on the Hudson River in New York. That experience had a lasting impact and helped her become aware of the connections between environmental protection and human well-being.

“Climate change is arguably the largest issue facing society today; it disproportionately affects the developing world, costal regions, and the global poor, but its effects will ultimately be felt everywhere,” said Kaiser. “It’s a social justice issue rooted in the environment, and thus, addressing it in order to ensure equitable opportunities for the well-being of all people should be considered a moral obligation.”

After arriving at Penn State, Kaiser wanted to continue her support of the environment and social justice, but needed a way to achieve this goal. She met with a variety of organizations, but nothing seemed to fit. That is until she met with Nathan Larkin, founding member and president of Fossil Free PSU. Together they created Fossil Free PSU, an official student organization with the goal to persuade Penn State to formulate a long-term plan to begin phasing out fossil fuels from investments.

Regardless of the organization or cause, Kaiser believes that anyone can make a positive change in something that they truly believe in. This motivation has helped her succeed in building a group that combines individual voices and helps stand up for those in need.

Currently, Kaiser is studying aboard in Tanzania seeing firsthand how climate change is affecting the lives of the local community and how they must adapt to survive. Her work in Africa will continue with a research project deals with the effects of climate change on gender roles in the Hadzabe and Maasai tribes of Tanzania.   

While in high school, Nathan Larkin, founding member and president ofFossil Free PSU, became interested in environmental justice. This interest expanded during his first year at Penn State when he, along with a few friends, created Fossil Free PSU.

“[The] fossil free movement was just starting and it struck with me that we needed to have a movement at Penn State,” Larkin said. “Many students see or read about social injustices every day, but most people feel powerless to do anything about it; they feel like they alone cannot make a difference. My work has shown that anyone can organize to help put an end to injustices.”

Larkin’s main goal for Fossil Free PSU is to show how local change can have global implications. If people are able to stand up to injustices, together they can bring about meaningful change and help society. Over the next year, Fossil Free PSU would like to build relationships with other student groups and continue to work with Penn State to find ways to divest from fossil fuels.

“Our everyday language is sprinkled with references to the 'carbon footprint,' 'water footprint,’ 'digital footprint,' but few talk about an 'ethics footprint.' The Stand Up awards are about expanding our moral horizons and learning to see how our actions affect those around us,” said Eduardo Mendieta, associate director of the Rock Ethics Institute. “The Stand Up awardees have confirmed my conviction that the Rock Ethics Institute and Penn State are helping to expand this 'ethical footprint' by teaching us how we can make an impact and transform our lives by modeling ethical leadership."

The stigma and helplessness that comes from poverty caused Jaden Rankin-Wahlers to get involved and help raise awareness for the cause. She is co-president of Lion’s Pantry at Penn State, a student-run food pantry that helps students who are in need. Her main efforts have been to raise awareness about poverty at Penn State and help students understand that they shouldn’t go hungry.

“Asking for help can be scary, but I want people to understand they are not alone,” said Rankin-Wahlers. “I want to stand up for people who need help and empower them.”

To help reach the groups goals in serving more students who are in need, Rankin-Wahlers is looking to partner with residential dining, on-campus eateries, the Interfraternity Council at Penn State, and local businesses and restaurants.

“We are proud to honor these three students whose commitment to ethical leadership serves as a model to us all,” said Nancy Tuana, the Nancy Tuana Director of the Rock Ethics Institute and DuPont/Class of 1949 Professor of Philosophy. “Their stories illustrate what it means to stand up, meet the challenge, and make a difference. “

More information about the honorees and the Stand Up Award can be found at

The Rock Ethics Institute was established through a $5 million gift in 2001 from Doug and Julie Rock to the College of the Liberal Arts. The institute’s mission is to promote ethical awareness and inquiry across the University, and in the public and professional sectors, through a three-fold emphasis on teaching, research and outreach. Recently, the Rocks endowed the Nancy Tuana Directorship of the Rock Ethics Institute with an additional $5 million gift, which was part of a larger commitment they made to the College during "For the Future: The Campaign for Penn State Students."

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