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When Ben May was in 10th grade, he wanted to start an environmental outreach club at Mount Sinai High School. But he wasn’t sure if anyone would show up.
“Everyone just kind of threw bottles, cans, paper, everything in the trash, and it all went to a landfill,” said May, 18. His goal was to strengthen the school’s recycling program and launch initiatives such as installing water fountains for reusable bottles.
To his surprise, May said about 60 students showed up to the first meeting. “It was so big that for a while, we’d have meetings in separate rooms because we had too many people for one room,” he said.
Even though May said the club was largely a success, there were some days when no one else would show up to the meetings due to obligations and class assignments.
“I’d be like, all right, I could either go home and do homework — or spend about two or three hours collecting all the bottles and preventing any fruit flies.”
“So I’d just do that. I’d be carrying like five bags over my back and I’d be slumped over, walking across the school.”
As a native Long Islander, May has a special connection to the ocean. He has been involved in beach cleanups on several Suffolk County shores over the years, and participated in national and global environmental efforts, including the Sea Youth Rise Up Campaign and the Youth Ocean Conservation Summit.
Through Sea Youth Rise Up, May and six other millennial leaders from around the world met in 2016 with President Barack Obama’s Council on Environmental Quality at the White House. May said the group discussed how to protect an “incredibly fragile and incredibly beautiful” ecosystem off the coast of Cape Cod.
The area was ultimately designated as the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument by Obama in September 2016. It is the first national marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean.
“It was incredibly impactful,” May said of the experience. “I’m going to take the lessons I learned from it through the rest of my life, and it also taught me that I love doing this.”
May graduated as valedictorian in 2017. Mount Sinai High School principal Robert Grable remembers May as an “overt thinker,” and said he left quite a legacy behind through the initiatives he created with his club.
“His mind was always moving,” Grable said, “and he was always looking to what he could do next.”
After graduation, May headed to the University of Pennsylvania. While there, he said he had to adjust his priorities.
“When I go to Penn and I bring up an oceanic issue, they’re like, ‘Ben, we’re like a hundred miles away from the ocean, let’s do stuff here,’ ” he said with a laugh.
So he joined several environmental groups on campus and is working to expand the recycling program and water fountain program.
“It’s a really awesome experience,” he said. “Especially as a freshman in the fall, it was very empowering to be able to say, ‘If I wanted to, I could really get involved and really make a difference on campus.’ ”
May plans to major in mathematical economics and international relations with a minor in environmental studies, and wants to tie these fields together into his career path.
“There are brilliant scientists out there who have done amazing research and studies on the issues with the ocean and the issues with the environment, and have presented ideas on how to change it for the better,” May said. “But there aren’t so many people out there who are studying how we can make it so that not only are we helping the environment, but also we’re going to help the economy.”
May thinks he and his fellow millennials have a harder task at hand than prior environmental activists.
“Past generations worked to protect the environment so that their future children would have a beautiful world,” he said.
For his generation, “It’s not going to be that there’s no beauty in the world, it’s going to be that there’s no world. And I really don’t want that future to come to fruition; I really want to prevent that sort of dystopia.”