GW Junior Vidya Muthupillai's Icelandic Journey of Climate Hope

The Storyfest winner and GW alumna Michelle Rubin’s expedition to Iceland focused on the country’s work to tackle the climate crisis.

September 12, 2023

 Michelle Rubin speaking with Vidya Muthupillai.

Michelle Rubin speaking with Vidya Muthupillai.

Vidya Muthupillai, one of six winners of the 2023 Storyfest storytelling competition, recently returned from a weeklong, once-in-a-lifetime adventure to Iceland spent exploring remote fjords and volcanic isles, while learning about the groundbreaking strides the island nation has made to tackle the climate crisis. 

The George Washington University junior, who is studying political science and international affairs with a minor in sustainability, said she was breathless from the moment she stepped on the island. 

Every day was a new adventure, Muthupillai said, as she and her colleagues spent their first four days exploring remote parts of Iceland from aboard Lindblad Expeditions’ ship, the National Geographic Resolution, docking to visit volcanoes, waterfalls and taking in the stunning scenery. After disembarking, the students spent an additional two days seeing Iceland by land, including geothermal springs and speaking with sustainability experts on the ground pioneering renewable energy, carbon mineralization and geothermal-powered recycling efforts.

“It was mind-blowing. I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life before,” Muthupillai said. 

The Planet Forward Storyfest competition is part of the annual Planet Forward Summit hosted by the School of Media and Public Affairs. The summit brings students from more than 30 universities across the nation to GW along with sustainability leaders in various industries to discuss the challenges around climate change and successful, innovative strategies. The competition highlights and celebrates the best in student-generated environmental stories.

This summer, the ship carried a team of naturalists, an expedition leader and National Geographic-trained photographers to Iceland.

“I was very impressed; they were truly experts in their field, and they would teach us about the ecosystems and wildlife. Some of them were Icelandic, and they would also tell us about their culture,” Muthupillai said. 

The experts aboard the ship also talked to the passengers about the fears Icelanders had surrounding the impact of climate change such as melting glaciers, as well as the steps the country has taken to incorporate sustainable practices into daily life to reach a national goal of being carbon neutral by 2040.

Muthupillai, who is a passionate advocate for tackling the climate crisis, said she left the trip with a renewed sense of hope. 

“Iceland is very forward about finding solutions and banding together to tackle climate change,” Muthupillai said. “They've done what people keep telling us is impossible to do.” 

She was born and raised in Texas and began advocating for climate action after seeing the massive and detrimental impact the climate crisis was having on her community. 

“I grew up in the Houston area, which is the fossil fuel capital of the country, maybe even the world,” Muthupillai said. “And we were very much on the frontlines of climate change.” 

In recent years, Texas has been hit with back-to-back floods, hurricanes and winter storms that devastated people’s homes and livelihoods. Seeing the destruction caused by the unprecedented and severe weather fired up Muthupillai to begin organizing protests and start writing about the need to enact legislation to protect the environment. 

“I never considered myself a writer,” Muthupillai said. “My love for storytelling came from climate advocacy.” 

Her story titled “Nebraska Sandhills Hint Changing Tides in Agriculture” won in the Most Compelling Character category of the Storyfest competition. It introduced readers to Mark Kossler, a bison rancher who is at the forefront of efforts to change the way grazing animals are raised by searching for alternative methods that repair the soil and improve the well-being of the animals. 

Even though Iceland was seemingly a world away from the ranch she visited in Nebraska or her hometown in Texas, she realized people everywhere are experiencing the same fears about climate change.

“One of the biggest things I learned is that these conversations, even though they might be about different things, have a very similar thread at heart,” Muthupillai said.

For the 2023 Storyfest trip to Iceland, SMPA invited members of the GW Board of Trustees and their families to join. Trustee Michelle Rubin, B.A. ’91, was one of four trustees on the trip, joined by the chair of the GW Board of Trustees Grace Speights, J.D. ’82; Judith Rogers, MVC ’74; and Donna Staton, J.D. '82. 

Rubin said by the end of the trip, she was inspired by students’ passion for climate advocacy. “To be able to talk and learn from (students like Vidya)and hearing her talk about what she’s learning, the projects she’s working on and to see it through the vision of college students—it  gives one a lot of hope when sometimes it seems hopeless,” Rubin said. 

She said the expedition revealed all of the ways people can unite to improve our planet. 

“It was the adventure of a lifetime, and I learned a lot about the [Icelandic] people, the culture and especially how they care for their land,” Rubin said. 

Every night, as everyone aboard the ship would gather for dinner, the crew and expedition leaders would discuss the agenda for the next day, highlighting the history and importance of the site they would explore. Rubin said those meetings left her energized and excited to start a new adventure. “Each day was so unique and so different,” she said. 

The connections Rubin made with people on the ship made the trip all the more special, she said, explaining that everyone came from unique backgrounds. Two Lindblad Expeditions’ undersea specialists came back from dives with a video of the wildlife they saw underwater to share with the group. Another naturalist on the ship was a whale biologist who provided helpful information when the group spotted the animals in their travels. 

“It was fascinating. Anything you saw, there was an expert you could ask questions (to). I learned a lot. I mean the people on the ship were truly, very interesting people and even though we had never met before, everyone was approachable, and we had great conversations,” Rubin said. 

As the trip came to an end, Rubin said she was filled with gratitude to have gotten to visit a different part of the world and learn so much with people invested in protecting the planet. 

“Just to have been a part of that, was such a great experience. And to see GW be a part of it was definitely a proud moment,” Rubin said.