Last September, Daniela Fernandez and the Sustainable Oceans Alliance brought a number of high-profile speakers to the Hilltop for the Our Oceans, One Future Summit on ocean preservation. (Photo courtesy Daniela Fernandez)
February 13, 2017 — When Daniela Fernandez (C’17) found herself sitting in on a United Nations meeting on ocean preservation, it awakened an urgency to build awareness among young people about the environmental issue. Today, her work with the Sustainable Oceans Alliance (SOA) has earned a spot in the United Nations Youth Solutions Report.
Fernandez was able to attend the 2014 U.N. summit courtesy of a connection from the Georgetown Scholarship Program. It was a dream come true, she recalled, but as the summit progressed, she was overcome by a feeling she hadn’t anticipated – fear.
“I was afraid for the future of our oceans,”she said. “Afraid to think about what having no fish by 2040 would mean, for example.”
She thought the statistics were grim. By the time she returned to her residence hall, Fernandez felt she had no choice but to act.
“Before leaving, I spoke to the ambassador of Palau, asked him if they used social media, if they had any communication outlets to reach my generation,” she recalled. “And he said ‘No, we’re not focused on that at the moment.’ And I thought that was a huge problem. You have to communicate this issue to my generation, because we’re going to be the ones that have to tackle it during our lifetime.”
Fernandez’s jarring wake-up call blossomed into a movement when she founded SOA in 2014. It rapidly evolved from a small group of passionate Georgetown students to a massive, multi-chaptered organization that promotes millennial involvement in saving the oceans.
“I wanted to reach people outside the environmental movement,” she said. “Not just those who want to be biologists and scientists, but those who want to be politicians or CEOs.”
As SOA founder and CEO, Fernandez garnered national attention last year: Glamour named her a Top 10 College Woman of the Year, and she received the Peter Benchley Ocean Award. SOA’s recent U.N. report recognition now puts it among 50 youth-led projects in line with the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Fernandez suspects this honor is related to SOA’s expansion and longevity. It’s one thing to put on a successful conference, as many admirable college startup groups do, but it’s another to duplicate the feat while expanding to several campuses, developing corporate partnerships and generating tangible change, she says.
Since its inception on the Hilltop, SOA has stuck it its goal of promoting millennial engagement by launching chapters at Columbia University, The George Washington University, American University, Stanford University, Wesleyan University and Centre College. Fernandez has her eye on 50 U.S. chapters in the next year, and potential international expansion beyond that.
“We’re aiming to reach 200 chapters by 2018, including some outside the U.S.,” she said.
In 2015, SOA partnered with The Economist on the World Ocean Summit, a conference in Portugal on oceanic preservation. Fernandez wrote an article for the newsmagazine on millennial engagement in ocean issues and will soon return to speak at the Summit’s 2017 iteration, held in Bali, Indonesia.
Lest we suspect that activism on the Hilltop had fallen by the wayside amidst this expansion, Fernandez noted that SOA helped create Georgetown’s first ocean law policy class, going as far as creating a syllabus and recruiting a professor, Monica Medina (C’83). While Fernandez was quick to credit some of her core government classes — specifically Fr. Matthew Carnes’ Comparative Political Systems and Matthew Kroenig’s International Relations — with guiding her vision for SOA, she felt that an ocean-focused curriculum was a necessary addition.
SOA’s growth has even featured some serious star power: At last fall’s Our Ocean, One Future summit on campus, the organization partnered with the U.S. Department of State for a panel discussion on ocean preservation featuring Secretary of State John Kerry and actor-activist Adrian Grenier.
One major question looms for Fernandez: When you’ve founded a national organization, traveled halfway around the world, and met a sitting Cabinet member, all in support of your lifelong passion, what do you plan for after graduation?
“I hope to make SOA its own standalone organization,” Fernandez said. “If that works out, I’ll decide if I would run it full-time or just remain on the board and hire someone to do so. But I’m working to make sure SOA lives on after my graduation.”
To that end, the SOA hasn’t forgotten its roots: This year’s Third Annual Sustainable Oceans Summit — organized by SOA Georgetown chapter President Elena Itameri (COL’18) in conjunction with Will Hackman (MPP’18) and the McCourt School of Public Policy’s Energy & Environmental Policy Group — will take place on Earth Day, April 22.
Fernandez is focusing her own energies on external relations and long-term planning as the organization’s Board Chair. Where she goes next is still up in the air. But as far as college careers go, a UN recognition for your organization isn’t a bad final chapter.
— Patrick Curran