Originally from Germany, Malena Thren came to Ireland to study Environmental Science at NUI Galway. In her second year, she was elected chairperson of the Sustainability Working Group, and successfully pushed for a referendum to include a Sustainability Officer for the Students Union.
Malena is the incoming Environmental Officer of the Student’s Union for the upcoming college year and plans to focus her efforts on bringing greater environmental awareness to students on campus and a greater appreciation for nature.
I’ve always cared about sustainability. In my generation, I think it’s for everybody. I was always interested in politics as well, so when I looked more into what I might do when I left school, I realised that science is really, really important in times like this. I figured I could do my part by studying environmental science and so far, I’m very happy with my choice.
I started volunteering in Germany with a children’s service project, where you meet many different children from many different families. We had a refugee family from Syria and families from different social backgrounds, so that’s how my social interest started. When I came to Ireland, I didn’t know anybody, so I thought I’d just try everything. I became a class representative; I joined the sustainability working group and I became chairperson of that in my second year.
There’s so much going on in Galway regarding sustainability initiatives and clean-ups, which helped me become much more involved. I volunteered with Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture, which had to cancel its opening event due to a big storm – an environmental issue that’s becoming more and more frequent in Ireland. Then the Covid 19 Pandemic hit, which is an environmental issue as well. While I was sitting at home during lockdown, I felt that the best thing I could do was to read more books and watch more documentaries on the climate crisis.
In Germany, a lot of the initiatives are bigger due to the population, and a lot of the campaigns have been running for quite some time, so they’re more well-known and easier to find. The campaigns appear to be much newer here in Ireland, and maybe not so well known. Based on what I have experienced as a college student, a lot of these are led by students. There are certain things we can learn from Germany regarding what has worked in the past, and maybe what hasn’t worked – I feel that we could really learn from each other.
My main area of interest in study is sustainable infrastructure. Humans (unless we completely mess up!) are going to be here for a while, so we better make it work and we better make sure that our life is balanced with nature.
Right now, I’m trying to meet a lot of people that I can learn from because I’m still quite young at 20, so I have so much of life ahead of me. There are many people here that have great experience, which is why I went for an internship with CUSP (Community and University Sustainability Project).
Career-wise, I’ve always said I didn’t want to be a politician, but that is where you change things. I could definitely see myself continuing to volunteer as a climate activist, but I think ultimately, I’d like to actually work on the problem, so I may go down the engineering route.
I think a lot of people think it takes a lot of effort to be sustainable, but it really doesn’t. Not everyone needs to be vegan, and not everybody needs to go plastic-free, it’s about choices. I could choose the plastic bottle of milk, or I could choose the carton. I think a lot of it is starting with the little steps – follow the right Instagram accounts, join a WhatsApp group. You don’t have to engage immediately – just see what they post about, what’s going on, and you might just find something that interests you, somewhere you can go and meet new people. Once you have the community there, you’re going to go back – the hardest part is that very first step of engagement. And remember that every little bit helps – every kilogram that we stop from going into the atmosphere will make a difference.
I feel we could highlight more to students just how sustainable the university actually is. Many students feel that we don’t do anything for renewable energy, but that’s not true; CUSP, for instance, does so much work. It would really help students to get engaged if they knew that the college was trying.
During Energy Awareness Week, we had 20 to 30 students going up into the towers in NUI Galway, looking down on campus and seeing the solar panels on the roof, and the library catching rainwater and recycling it. Things are happening – we just need more people to engage.