BLOOMINGTON, Ill. –– Illinois Wesleyan University environmental studies major Leah
Bieniak ’21 has been awarded a national Udall Scholarship for excellence in leadership, public service, and commitment to the environment.
The Udall Scholarship is a highly competitive award. This year, 55 awardees were selected
from across the nation. The scholarship recognizes students who possess strong leadership
qualities, a commitment to public service, and a desire to improve the conditions
of Native American nations or the environment.
“During their time in Congress and in other national leadership positions, Morris
K. and Stewart L. Udall dedicated their time to these fields when they were facing
a serious lack of support and awareness,” explained Bieniak. “Though their work made
strides, these fields are still in need of attention and advocates.”
Bieniak was encouraged to apply for the Udall Scholarship by the George C. and Ella
Beach Lewis Endowed Professor of Biology Given Harper and Professor of Environmental
and International Studies Abigail Jahiel. The scholarship presented Bieniak an opportunity
to become a part of the passionate, hardworking community of Udall scholars.
Bieniak is the second-ever Illinois Wesleyan student to win a prestigious Udall award.
In 2006, Leslie Coleman was named a Udall Scholar. IWU also had two honorable mentions:
Leslie Morrison in 2007 and Kelly Petersen in 2009.
“As campus liaison for the Udall Scholarship, I would simply say that, in my view,
Leah exemplifies the values of the Udall brothers for whom the Udall Foundation is
named,” said Director of Environmental Studies William Munro. “Hers is a powerful, ambitious, and optimistic vision to which she
is passionately committed. I am pleased that the Udall Foundation applauds it, and
the network of Udall Scholars will offer a great support system. This is a thoroughly
Munro added, “Stewart Udall, on whose work Bieniak wrote her application essay, spent
a year at Yale as a professor of Environmental Humanism, and I think of Bieniak as
an ‘environmental humanist.’ She believes a world in which humans understand their
roles within ecological systems, rather than as stewards of ecological systems, is
a world in which both nature and humans will be better off. This is particularly true
of urban environments, and her ambition is to work as an urban ecologist to produce
such holistic environments.”
At Illinois Wesleyan, Bieniak serves as president of the Sierra Student Coalition,
a co-chair of GREENetwork, and a member of the Spanish and Latinx Student Association
and the Muslim Student Association. She also interned in the environmental department
of a civil engineering firm where she helped control invasive plant species and assisted
in prairie restoration.
As a sophomore, Bieniak was awarded an Eckley Scholarship to conduct summer research
with Professor of Biology Given Harper on the urban habitats of migratory birds, a
project that is ongoing. Bieniak and Harper, along with fellow student researcher
Rachel Schoenecker ’20, are working to determine what bird species are breeding in
urban cities and what habitat characteristics they prefer. They hope their findings
will be used to make Bloomington-Normal, and other urban areas, more accommodating
to breeding birds.
“I find this research interesting because I’ve always been a bit of a ‘bird nerd,’
and as an aspiring ecologist I want to help mitigate the impacts of habitat loss,”
Bieniak explained. “This research is important because it can show us how to better
protect bird species. As the human population grows and urbanization increases, more
natural habitat is destroyed. Many bird species are being forced into alternative
habitats, such as urban/suburban areas, for breeding, even though these habitats may
not suit all of their needs. Bird populations have already faced steep declines since
the 1970s, so it is vital that we protect what natural habitat is still available
while providing more suitable alternative habitats.”
Entering her senior year this fall, Bieniak’s ultimate career goal is to serve as
an urban ecologist who uses ecosystem research to promote the design of environmentally
sustainable and ecologically resilient cities.
“I hope to determine ways to integrate natural processes into an urban landscape and
then implement the solutions to make urban areas healthier living spaces that facilitate
proper environmental stewardship and encourage a finer appreciation of the natural
world,” explained Bieniak.
Bieniak is grateful for the many opportunities she has experienced as an Illinois
Wesleyan student, and she is especially thankful for the mentorship of Harper.
“Since my first visit to Illinois Wesleyan, Dr. Harper has been one of my best sources
of encouragement and guidance,” Bieniak said “As an academic advisor, research advisor,
and professor, he has helped me navigate the wonders of ecology, the hardships of
a college schedule, and the confusion and elation of figuring out future plans.”
Bieniak continued, “His patience and positivity have made learning in the classroom
and in the field much more rewarding experiences. From research and bird call demonstrations
to studying abroad in Barcelona, I am very grateful for the opportunities he has provided
my peers and me.”