Boise High School students take Boise State climate change course, funded by Jane Fonda

Photo courtesy of Shiva Rajbhandari

In 2017, the Idaho legislature’s House Education Committee voted to remove discussions on climate change from the K-12 curriculum.

Dr. Jen Pierce, a professor in the geosciences department at Boise State and the lead instructor for Foundations of Climate Change, noticed a divide in knowledge while teaching a University Foundations course regarding climate science. 

Her students who had attended Idaho’s K-12 education system knew far less about climate change than the students who came to Boise State from out-of-state K-12 education systems.

“I have about 30% of my students coming from California, another 20 to 30% are coming from Oregon and Washington, who come in with that climate background,” Pierce said. “Our Idaho students do not get that K through 12 education, which just from a purely educational standpoint, leaves them way far behind when they go to college.”

However, Boise High School junior Shiva Rajbhandari thought of a way to breach that divide. Rajbhandari wanted to attend a climate change course offered by Boise State but had to find the means of paying for it first. In July, after boldly reaching out to actress and environmentalist Jane Fonda, Rajbhandari received a generous donation.

Fonda offered to pay for nine Boise High students to attend Dr. Jen Pierce’s Foundations of Climate Change course, since one wasn’t offered at their high school. 

“What I’m doing, essentially, in exchange for paying for climate classes for 9 of you, is offering you all an opportunity to learn some skills that can translate to your activism,” Fonda wrote in an email to Rajbhandari.

[Photo of Shiva Rajbhandari and fellow classmates]
Photo courtesy of Shiva Rajbhandari

Almost five weeks into the fall semester, Rajbhandari and his peers are adjusting well to the new college environment and to the course that they were all so eager to enroll in. 

“I think, first of all, being on campus is such a valuable experience,” Rajbhandari said. “Having this kind of immersion process is really valuable. As far as the class, I think it’s so interesting and as the kind of activists we are, there’s still a ton that we don’t know.”

As rewarding as the conversations have been so far, Rajbhandari and his peers are still thrilled to discover more about this course and its contents. 

For Rajbhandari specifically, reaching out to Fonda and choosing to take this class was driven by more than just a spark of interest. This interest was fueled by the mentoring from other educators and those like Fonda, who push young people to create change within the system. 

To Rajbhandari, taking this class was showing his place in the system. 

“How do we approach this kind of justice and change this kind of system?” Rajbhandari said. “I also think that really speaks to educators that we’ve had in the past that we were empowered enough to know, ‘hey, this is our place, we should be in this class.’” 

Rajbhandari has not only been supported by his mentors and educators but he has also been supported by his peers who have joined him in taking this college course.

Boise High sophomore Tyson Russell is also enrolled in Pierce’s class with Rajbhandari, and he shared that he feels widely accepted by the other hundred classmates in his class.

“I feel like I’ve learned more about climate change in the last couple of weeks than I had ever before,” said Russell. “I had a lot of anxiety about what college might be like […] and it made me feel a lot more comfortable because everyone in this class was pretty accepting and didn’t act weird because I wasn’t in college with them.”

According to Dr. Pierce, the class is mainly tailored to freshman students. Considering this demographic, the age gap between the enrolled college students and those coming from Boise High School isn’t as extreme. 

“I mean, most of the students in this class are freshmen so they’re not that far away from high school either,” Pierce said. “I think that even though they may feel like they’re in very different groups, I think of them from all of the same peer groups who come in with the same level of knowledge.”

Not all high school students are given a donation to attend a college course regarding something that they didn’t have access to in their standard K-12 curriculum. 

Fabiola Juarez-Coca works on campus as the director of the Concurrent Enrollment Program, where they are able to assist current high school students with enrolling in a college course, either on campus or in the comfort of their own school. 

Juarez-Coca had worked with Rajbhandari and his peers in getting enrolled for the climate change course. There is also a more cost-effective version for high school students looking to take college courses. 

“We take the university curriculum to the high school where qualified high school instructors teach our content,” Juarez-Coca said. “Over 7,000 students in high school are taking our classes, and only a handful come to our campus to take classes at the higher rate. It’s more affordable for them when they take it at their high school.”

The divide between Rajbhandari, Boise High classmates and the freshmen on Boise State’s campus aren’t significant, but the divide between high school students within Idaho and across state borders can be. 

This handful of students were craving to learn more in order to enact change in their community and the class they wanted to enroll in would serve them in more ways than one. 

“We have to,” Rajbhandari said. “That’s what our role is right now.” 

This time was different for these nine high school students. They felt it was their place to take a course that sparked their passion for healing climate change, and Rajbhandari took action to make something of it.