Mitigating Environmental Impact with Innovation & Justice

by Ashleigh Hollowell, Office of Development Communications

Advancing environmental and social justice causes are values that both the University of San Francisco and The Schmidt Family Foundation aim to uphold in their organizational missions. With the close alignment of missions, partnering just seemed to make sense.

The Schmidt Family Foundation aims to diversify the environmental sector and to enable students to pursue studies that will eventually lead to a related career in the industry.

“It is important to us that the pipeline of students be filled with young people who are passionate about justice and human rights. That really describes the Jesuit tradition and the education I received at USF,” said Joe Sciortino MSEM ’06 executive director of The Schmidt Family Foundation. “So to us it made perfect sense to create a fellowship that was named for The Schmidt Family Foundation and to have it hosted by USF — it felt like all the values and approaches were aligned.”

The Schmidt Family Foundation is a global leader in supporting the advancement and understanding of how human activity impacts the environment. Founded in 2006 by philanthropists Eric and Wendy Schmidt, the Menlo Park-based organization focuses its efforts on advancing renewable and regenerative systems for food, water, and energy and prioritizes working with communities that are the most impacted by climate change and environmental pollution.

This is the fourth year The Schmidt Family Foundation has funded a fellowship at USF.

“The partnership with the university is a source of learning for us to stay connected to the communities we serve,” Sciortino said. “It helps keep us grounded and consistent with how we approach environmental issues.”

The Schmidt Family Foundation Fellowship is awarded to students who focus their research on topics related to the environment, sustainability, agriculture, and food security. This fellowship is awarded once per year. For the 2019-2020 school year, 21 students have been selected.

Changing the Environment From Here to In Turn Change Their Own Communities

Growing up binationally in the Sonoran Desert Region in Arizona, Isabella Gonzalez Potter ’16, MSEM ’22, developed a love for nature, which led her to pursue work that focused on the protection of natural resources. After learning about the groundwater pollution that plagued her hometown and the environmental justice struggles faced by many Latino communities like hers, Gonzales Potter became actively involved in water management and advocating for environmental justice.

Her first job when she was 16 was at an environmental nonprofit in Tucson where her passion for environmental justice was ignited.

“When I applied for The Schmidt Family Foundation Fellowship, I was thinking about what my intentions were going into the program, what I wanted to achieve, and what I wanted to focus on,” Gonzales Potter said. “That first job is what first exposed me to the project I am now doing for the fellowship. Water is a basic human need and it should be accessible to everybody — but at the same time, while being the fifth-largest economy in the world compared to other countries, there are over a million people who don't have access to safe and affordable drinking water just in the state of California... So, I always say that the personal is professional, and the professional is personal.”

Her ultimate goal is to advocate for and achieve a safe and affordable drinking water policy in California and replicate successes in her home state of Arizona.

Thousands of miles away from the Sonoran Desert Region, Muhammad Maaz Ali Haider MSEM ’22, was raised in one of the most populous cities in the world, Karachi, Pakistan — home to more than sixteen million people.

His passion for pursuing a career in energy and the environmental sector came from having lived in a metropolitan area in a developing country, plagued by energy security issues.

“The MSEM program is really immersive. I can tell you receiving The Schmidt Family Foundation Fellowship was absolutely the deciding factor on coming to study my masters at USF,” Haider said. “I’m looking at focusing my research on looking at trends in the energy sphere, with manufacturers and microgrids.”

Besides the optimum, sociable, and equitable uses to solve the problems faced by masses worldwide, Haider is passionate about fighting for the environment because he is passionate about making things better in his home country. He hopes to return to Pakistan to implement all he is currently learning in the program and through his research as a Schmidt Family Foundation Fellow.

The research topics of the 21 students in the fellowship range from improvements in the energy sector, to examining the impact contaminated groundwater has on communities, decreasing plastic consumption, developing technology to protect the environment, and on how issues of access to information and resources are woven into all of the above and more.

“We've been really inspired by the students’ research. They are really tackling environmental justice issues that are being deeply felt today, as well as looking at impacts from climate change ten or 20 years into the future,” said Sciortino.What they’re doing really matches well with the foundation's approach and what we focus on.”

Paying it Forward and Looking Back

As an alumnus of the university’s master of science in environmental management program and the executive director of The Schmidt Family Foundation, Sciortino is proud to be able to partner with his former university and to work with and learn from students in the same program he was once enrolled in.

“My education at the university was profound. It opened my eyes to climate change and other ways of thinking holistically about the environment,” Sciortino said. “I believe the university has all the conditions to create more life-altering opportunities for students. We need everyone focused on how we're going to build a resilient future — and I think that really can come through the work that's being done by USF students.”

The Schmidt Family Foundation has also partnered with USF and supports the university’s Data Institute, which assists the foundation in developing data capacity for staff and grantees, scoping grantee data science projects, consulting on grantee data collection, and modeling and advancing scientific discovery.

To learn more about supporting The Schmidt Family Foundation Fellowship, contact Lindsey McClenahan, Assistant Dean of Development, College of Arts and Sciences College of Arts and Sciences, at (415) 422-5105 or

This gift was made in support of Changing the World from Here: Campaign for the University of San Francisco.