When Anthony Wilson graduates from Central Michigan University this weekend, he'll be one giant step closer to goals that began to take shape in his earliest memories.
In 2005, living in Georgia and seeing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina play out on TV, Wilson noticed that the New Orleanians who seemed to be suffering the most looked like him and his family.
"I was 5 or 6 when I saw a lot of brown and Black people on the screen so helpless; that really disturbed me," he said. The feeling persisted as he came to know Black grade school classmates displaced by Katrina.
Understanding that weather and climate don't affect everyone equally, Wilson has planned his future career on studying how climate change, severe weather and heat waves affect poor minority communities.
"In New Orleans, there are still people from 2005 recovering and vulnerable," Wilson said. "You can see that the water level almost touches the top of the levee where most minorities live in the Lower Ninth Ward."
He said areas like these need more resources to deal with the effects of climate change, such as more severe storms.
"We've come to a point where we need to create a bigger disaster budget."
Government can plan and support elements such as green spaces and parks that reduce carbon dioxide concentration and cool the "urban heat island," and urban gardens that address "food deserts" where fresh goods are in short supply.
Turning passion into policies
Wilson, of Jonesboro, Georgia, expects his degree in geography with a concentration in geographic information sciences and a minor in mathematics to take him first to graduate school to pursue a doctorate in climate science or climate dynamics.
His next stop would be Washington, D.C., where he has his sights on the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — and on public policy.
"I really want to do the science, but I wouldn't mind talking to lawmakers about policies we could enact," he said.
'I have a lot more confidence'
Wilson found CMU online and enrolled as a MAC Scholar. He found support in his scholar cohort, fraternity and faith community — and in small classes where he could engage in research and come to know his professors.
Earth and Atmospheric Sciences faculty member John Allen worked with Wilson on a McNair Scholar project. Geography and Environmental Studies Department Chair Matthew Liesch introduced him to every professional in the field who visited campus.
"I was able to be developed as a scientist more personally than a lot of my peers at other institutions," he said.
That led to summer internships in 2019 and 2020 with Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science, or SOARS, where Wilson delved deeply into the science of heat waves.
Along the way he honed leadership skills, chatting almost daily with Jonathan Glenn, assistant director of CMU's Sarah R. Opperman Leadership Institute.
Nature magazine recently featured Wilson in an article about universities rethinking the graduate record examinations, or GRE, as a requirement for grad school admission. Many academic researchers and others say the test is unfair and keeps capable female and minority students from pursuing degrees in the sciences.
Wilson started a petition to make the test optional instead of required for 2020-21 — an effort he once would never have imagined leading.
"I feel like now I have a lot more confidence in my skills and in my work," he said.