Loyola University Chicago

Gannon Center for Women and Leadership

How change happens


By Carla Beecher

Some students enter college knowing exactly what they want to do; others don’t. Most don’t. But the beauty of a liberal arts education happens when it is met with a curious mind eager to explore the possibilities.

For Gannon scholar and rising senior Colette Copic, stepping onto Loyola’s campus three years ago, not knowing a soul in Chicago and wondering how her passion for the environment and women’s rights would play out in this big, Midwestern city, was the beginning of a journey of self-discovery that would take her from computer science to grassroots community organizing, from researching water rights to the front lines of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. She’s had many moments of clarity along the way, pointing her along a path that most certainly will benefit the disenfranchised, the environment, and the greater good.

“When I started my college search, I knew I wanted a school that had a social-justice mission, but I wasn’t really sure what that meant exactly,” said Copic by phone last summer from a coffee shop in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, where she was studying for the LSATs.

Copic was familiar with social-justice issues from attending a Jesuit high school in Portland and volunteering to be a sexual-assault victims’ advocate. She graduated from that training on her 18th birthday and acted as the bridge between survivors and the medical and law enforcement teams. It taught her to respect a person’s humanity and that how just being present speaks volumes.

“That was a huge turning point for me—a moment of growing up,” Copic said. “My work there showed me that sexism is alive, and it instilled a passion in me to help empower women and marginalized communities. Many of the survivors I helped were too poor to press charges against their attackers.”

She credits her Jesuit schooling and her parents—her father is a district attorney—for instilling healthy values, so that when she began exploring colleges, her focus was on whether its ideals matched her own.

“When I read about Loyola’s Gannon Scholars Program, I felt like it was written for me. I didn’t have the language back then to express who I was as a social-justice advocate or feminist, but when I was selected by the Gannon Center, it just clicked. It was a good fit.”

She came to campus inspired by Michelle Obama’s International Women’s Education Program and decided to challenge herself by majoring in computer science. Being from an environmentally conscious state, she chose to live in the GreenHouse Learning Community in the Institute of Environmental Sustainability for students who are passionate about nature and want to be change agents for a more sustainable society.

Required to take a class with other GreenHouse students, she chose theology and environmental ethics—food justice, food security, climate change—and it touched her.

“I felt so much passion deep within me about what I was learning that one day I just changed my major right then and there. It was the best decision I ever made. After that, I stood at the edge of Lake Michigan and thought, ‘I’m so thrilled to have the rest of my life to try to protect you.’”

Her major--environmental sciences and international studies--will give her a global perspective and forms the perfect blend of working for human rights and the need to protect the environment. “They are interconnected by gender and class and race,” she said.

In September of her sophomore year, Copic read about the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. As she learned more about it, she thought, “I need to go there and be active.”

She andfellow Gannon scholar Ellie Molise (BA ’17) hitched a ride with another group and drove 16 hours to camp out and help the cause.

“It was life changing.”

They built housing units and distributed food. She found the protest both transformative and challenging because “it made me confront my privilege.”

“On one hand it was so awesome to show up and do this, but then I thought, ‘I’m allowed to leave and go back to my nice school. What gives me the right to be here?’ It taught me that I will never truly understand the indigenous struggle. The heart of environmental issues is land usage and re-empowering previously disempowered groups.”

As she was trying to come to terms with her role politically, she saw a sign on a structure near the river that read: “The Legal Tent.”

She realized that she wanted to be in that tent helping people navigate the system so that they can use it in the way it was meant to be used—for civic engagement and democracy.

“That’s hard to do when you don't have years of schooling. But I have that opportunity. I decided then to become an environmental lawyer. I never felt so right about something.”

“Colette is a truly an inspired young woman and mature beyond her years,” added Nancy Tuchman, founding dean of the Institute of Environmental Sustainability. “The work toward saving the planet and advocating for environmental justice requires all hands on deck, and she has what it takes to be a very valuable leader in the movement.”

When Copic returned to campus, she started volunteering with a local nonprofit, the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, or PERRO, to learn about community organizing.

Then, during the second semester of her sophomore year, Copic studied abroad in Vietnam with nonprofit Make Science Make Sense, a STEM-education initiative to advance science literacy. There, she learned how cultural differences can affect the environment.

“Vietnam is in an industrial build-up phase where pollution and littering are generally accepted. I saw firsthand how cultural norms can play into pollution.”

Really getting busy

Copic’s junior year was a busy one. She met Gannon mentor Amy Krings, assistant professor of social work, who guided her research project for PERRO. Funded by the Gannon Center and the Johnson Scholarship, Copic’s study asked what makes people mobilize when a problem might not seem that urgent? How do they build power?

“We have similar interests around environmental justice and community organizing,” said Krings of Copic. “I helped Colette design a study to boost PERRO’s membership with longtime Pilsen residents who are dealing with gentrification issues.”

Also during her junior year, Copic began interning at ONE Northside, or Organizing Neighborhoods for Equality. As a member of its mental-health justice team, Copic not only ensured certain bills were implemented, but also stood outside mental health facilities to speak with clients about their lived experience in the mental health system. She asked them if they want to politicize their experiences by writing bills with ONE Northside to have a voice in changing what they wanted to change.

“I never felt more a part of Chicago in my life,” Copic said of her time there.

In the spring, Copic was a global water research intern at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

“It was very academic and research driven,” Copic said about studying ways in which water rights affect people and policies. She wrote briefs for her supervisor, Michael Tiboris, on how water rights escalated Syria’s civil war, how the recent Detroit water crisis unfolded, and the long-term implications of the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan.Their main project, which is a published paper on the council’s website and titled “Testing the Waters for Accountability,” concluded that Midwest fertilizer runoff into the Mississippi Water Basin isn’t a technical problem, but rather a political one. It asked how environmental issues are connected politically.

Now in her last year at Loyola, Copic, the Baum senior scholar at Gannon, plans to finish out her undergraduate days by having fun and enjoying college life. She also plans to wrap up her many projects, including writing a journal article with Krings about their PERRO experience. She’ll continue her work at ONE Northside; (hopefully) ace the LSATs, and begin building her hard skills in geographic information-system mapping—important for her future policy work. She also wants to give back to the Gannon Center that has invested so much in her.

“I am excited to get to know the young scholars and be a mentor for them as much as my mentors were for me. I owe my education and my success to Gannon.”

Janet Sisler, former director of the Gannon Center and current acting vice president for mission integration, has watched Copic grow as a scholar and activist. “Colette has a voracious passion to use her scholarship and research in service of justice. I’ve noticed that before jumping into action, she observes and listens and then she builds a solution focused on making the world work better.” 

Copic’s journey all started as a whim, to travel 2,000 miles from home to attend college in Chicago, but it ended up with a rising senior who may just end up on the international stage, fighting for sustainability and giving voice to the environmental issues of our time.