The September issue of The Blue and White can be found all around campus. You might not know the following figure—but you should. In Campus Characters, The Blue and White introduces you to a handful of Columbians who are up to interesting and extraordinary things and whose stories beg to be shared. If you’d like to suggest a Campus Character, send us an email at email@example.com.
If you are a friend of Hannah Perls, you may have been caught off guard once or twice by the shrill sound of your own name echoing up the street from several blocks away. Acquaintances, former class-mates, and anyone who has ever attended a meeting of a student environmental group should also beware: to avoid being knocked over by Perls’ galloping excitement, adopt a wide stance and spread your arms to receive her high-speed hug.
Perls seeks interaction of all sorts wherever she goes. She routinely flouts the social code of the New York sidewalk—instead of headphones and a focused, declining stare, Perls demands exuberant interaction. “She cat-called me from across Broadway when I was wearing spandex!” says Todd Nelson, CC ’12, of a post jog run-in with Perls last winter. “Girl’s got no shame. But then we ended up having a nice conversation about life and checked in—she has the ability to juxtapose inappropriateness with a ‘bring her home to your mother’ quality,” he says.
Despite her overwhelming gusto and sass, other friends remark that Perls is remarkably down to earth. Quickly switching gears from a riveting tale of her semester abroad, Perls describes herself thoughtfully : “I guess I’m not the person who gets stressed out very often or goes crazy. You know, if someone has an issue they can just knock on my door. They know that it’s open.”
Compared to the average Columbia student, Perls seems surprisingly unburdened. The difficulties she encountered during semester abroad in Nepal—where she was studying the effects of El Niño on Himalayan glaciers as part of her Environmental Studies major—consistently excited rather than perturbed her. “You go off,” Perls explains, brimming with enthusiasm, “and it’s just you and this Nepali student who acts as a translator. We knew Nepali, but certainly not well enough to go off on our own—especially if you’re a white woman.”
An unexpected turn of events cut her research short: “We had about ten days left, and this was when the Maoists declared an indefinite national strike,” explains Perls. “Eventually the Maoists ended up using tear gas and it got slightly violent—but foreigners were never in any danger,” she assures.
Nor did frustrations with campus organizations discourage Perls, who came to Columbia with passion for environmental activism. “I had sort of flirted with every single environmental organization my freshman year, and one of the things was there was absolutely no communication between any of them.” Perls saw the problem as a personal challenge and, in 2008, she responded with a solution: Green Umbrella, an organization she founded to coordinate communication between student environmental groups. Todd Nelson, the current head of the Columbia/Barnard EcoReps, agrees: “Last year was unarguably a big step forward for the environmental groups on campus. [Hannah] was an enormous part of this success,” he emphasizes. Her friends are quick to note that the impact of her work in environmentalism on campus hasn’t gone to her head. Laura Resnick, a close friend, says, “She basically carried [Green Umbrella] by herself—she’s so modest about it, I didn’t even know.”
Even after racking up experience in environmental research at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and in advocacy on Capitol Hill at the Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming, she says she doesn’t quite know what she wants to do after graduation. She mentions environmental health as an area she might explore, but she does have other priorities: “I have this very strange addiction to the ocean that I haven’t completely satisfied, so at some point I’d like to work on a boat,” she says.
For the moment, however, Perls is content to focus on her work, including her ambitious plans for her thesis, potentially covering the history and environmental impact of fisheries in New York City. “It’s senior year,” she remarks. “Go big or go home—in a purely non-alcoholic, studious way.”
Illustration by Stephen Davan