Protecting the future of the planet through visual storytelling.
Planet Forward empowers a new generation to lead global conversations on environmental issues to create change.
Member schools: 25
George Washington University
School of Media and Public Affairs
Stories from students published since inception
Create a platform for college students to share stories about environmental issues and solutions
Harness the passion, knowledge, and creativity of students to make an impact on the world
Expand the reach of student reporting through global partnerships
Provide opportunities to expose students to real world learning experiences and celebrate excellence in environmental journalism
Amplifies the voices of student correspondents from 25 U.S. universities to teach and inspire
Published over 5,000 stories on environmental and sustainability issues to date
Reaches more people through PBS “Peril and Promise” and other media partnerships including Comcast
Engages hundreds of students in the power of creative storytelling through the annual Planet Forward Summit and Storyfest competition
The amazing planet we call home faces new pressures every day. According to the 2019 World Population Prospects from the United Nations, the number of people worldwide is expected to grow from 7.7 billion to 9.7 billion by 2050 — a change that will place even greater strains on Earth’s already stretched resources.
“Current projections indicate that we will need twice as much energy, 60% more food, and 40% more water by 2050,” says Emmy-award-winning journalist Frank Sesno. “That really leaves us with only two choices: innovate or witness tremendous suffering in the world.”
Frank Sesno has spent his career shining a light on critical societal issues. During his two decades at CNN, Sesno served as one of the network’s faces of journalistic excellence, reporting from the White House, hosting daily shows, and interviewing heads of state, Nobel prize-winners, business leaders, and celebrities from around the globe. Over the past 12 years, Sesno has helped inspire the leaders of the future through his work at George Washington University (GW), first as director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, and now as Director of Strategic Initiatives.
For Sesno, the leap to academia was an easy one. “Both journalism and teaching are very similar in how they allow you to connect with people,” says Sesno. “When I started teaching, I was surprised to have students come up to me after class and tell me that I had changed how they thought about something. It was the same energy I experienced as a CNN journalist when people would come up to me on the street to talk about how a story affected them. It was really gratifying to see how I was making an impact.”
“Young people today have more information, reach, and influence at their fingertips than any previous generation. When they can use that energy to engage and mobilize their peers, they can do amazing things.”
Founder, Planet Forward, and Director of Strategic Initiatives, School of Media and Public Affairs, George Washington University
Elevating a new generation of voices with Planet Forward
Even as Sesno inspired students around him, he was inspired by their passion. “It gives you faith in the future,” says Sesno. “Young people today have more information, reach, and influence at their fingertips than any previous generation. When they can use that energy to engage and mobilize their peers, they can do amazing things.”
Sesno wanted to create a new media project that would unleash student potential. When he reached out to his industry contacts to ask them what they thought was the biggest issue for the future, he discovered that one issue was at the top of most everyone’s minds: the future of the planet.
“It all comes back to sustainability,” explains Sesno. “The environment is an issue that’s both local and global. It involves technology, business, science, and policy. It seemed like the perfect topic to engage smart young people wanting to challenge themselves, learn, and help create change.”
Planet Forward Storyfest Fan Favorite award winner "Wait! Before you squish that bug..." by Deepti Bansal Gage.
Sesno founded Planet Forward as a platform where students can share stories that creatively teach, engage, and celebrate issues related to sustainability and the environment. Anyone can submit a story but Planet Forward, based at GW, selects about 15 student correspondents every year from a consortium of 25 member universities across the United States. The Planet Forward staff mentors the correspondents to help them create and publish three to four stories a year on sustainability topics that speak to them.
“We’re not just here for journalism students,” says Sesno. “We’re here for any student who wants to learn about a topic, understand it, and communicate it to others. Over the years, students from across the U.S. have published more than 5,000 stories through Planet Forward. Their stories have been featured on PBS and highlighted by our professional sponsors, including Comcast, Discovery, and National Geographic. Through Planet Forward, we’re bringing a national audience to students who want to make a difference in our planet’s future.”
“As a reporter these past couple of years, it’s been eye-opening to see how journalists can amplify under-reported stories about environmental crises around the world.”
Junior, George Washington University, and Planet Forward Student Correspondent
Capturing voices from the front lines of climate change
As a first-generation Filipino-American, Francesca Edralin recognized early on how climate change can have a huge impact on frontline communities. “Every time I visited my family in the Philippines, I would see the effects of typhoons and rising sea levels,” explains Edralin. “It made me very aware of environmental issues. I wanted to do something that would communicate the need for change.”
A junior at GW, Edralin studies international affairs with minors in journalism and sustainability. She credits a chance interaction with Planet Forward for inspiring her journey towards environmental storytelling.
“My freshman year, I saw a flyer talking about Planet Forward Summit,” recalls Edralin. “I wasn’t involved in journalism at the time and didn’t know anything about Planet Forward. I learned so much. There were speakers from National Geographic and NowThis News. They were talking about how powerful communications increased awareness around environmental issues, moved people, and shaped institutional change. It made me realize the power of storytelling.”
Edralin threw herself into journalism classes to understand how to be a better storyteller with help from Adobe Creative Cloud. As an Adobe Creative Campus, GW has long supported the idea of helping students learn how to communicate ideas creatively. Students have access to Adobe apps for use in all their classes, from journalism to science to politics, empowering students across disciplines with the digital literacy skills to become more effective communicators in the modern world. Past winners of Planet Forward’s annual Storyfest competition have used Adobe Spark to create visually rich stories and Adobe Premiere Rush to create compelling videos.
Frank Sesno with Storyfest winners and Planet Forward sponsor Lindblad Expeditions’ CEO Sven Lindblad.
During a video production class, Edralin learned how to use Adobe Premiere Pro to develop short documentaries. For her final project, Edralin captured the voices of four teenage activists from Fridays for Future, the climate change youth movement founded by Greta Thunberg. The documentary was selected as a finalist for Storyfest.
The experience led to an internship with Mongabay, a news site that focuses on conservation and environmental science reporting. During her internship, Edralin wrote a series of articles ranging from the discovery of a new crocodile species in New Guinea to interviews with environmentalists from her home country of the Philippines.
"The Green Bronx Machine", a short film documentary by Francesca Edralin.
As a Planet Forward student correspondent, Edralin uses her journalistic talent to highlight the work of activists dealing with sustainability issues worldwide, from plastic pollution in Cameroon to food insecurity in the Bronx. The former story won “Most Compelling Character” at the 2021 Storyfest awards. Edralin turned the latter into a short documentary that Planet Forward has posted and plans to share with wider audiences through its partnerships with Comcast and other schools.
“As a reporter these past couple of years, it’s been eye-opening to see how journalists can amplify under-reported stories of environmental crises around the world,” says Edralin. “Some of my Mongabay articles were tweeted out by NGOs and reached 50,000 views. My piece on the Bantayan Island Group was even submitted to the Philippines Senate as part of a campaign to maintain environmental protections. Planet Forward has given me the skills and connections that I need to amplify local voices and really influence policy change.”
"You’ve heard them on the streets, now hear their stories." Fridays for Future short documentary by Francesca Edralin.
“Being able to visualize data is essential to communicate my ideas and encourage change.”
Senior, University of Mississippi, and Planet Forward Student Correspondent
Driving change through technology
When people first hear about Rohan Agrawal's areas of study — computer science major with double minors in mathematics and international relations — they’re often taken aback. “People are surprised that I’m studying computers and foreign affairs at the same time,” admits Agrawal, a senior at the University of Mississippi. “But foreign policy has just always been really interesting to me. It’s why I decided to leave my small hometown in India to study abroad.”
Agrawal first became aware of Planet Forward after a classmate, who was a student correspondent, attended the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, a sponsor of Planet Forward. The organization seemed like a perfect fit for Agrawal’s interests. He applied for a Planet Forward scholarship to attend FAO’s Committee on World Food Security Conference as a student correspondent.
Rohan Agrawal at FAO's Committee on World Food Security Conference in Rome with other Planet Forward correspondents..
As a Planet Forward correspondent, Agrawal brought his unique, international perspective to wider audiences. His first article, a comparison of Indian and American food systems, opened the eyes of many to issues surrounding sustainable agriculture. Another article built upon an interview with First Lady of Colombia, María Juliana Ruiz Sandoval, and other global leaders from the FAO conference by discussing the role of technological innovation in solving hunger.
“Technology is a huge part of my life,” says Agrawal. “I run a coding club, and I love using Adobe Premiere Pro to make videos in my spare time. I think people underestimate how technology can become a driver to solve huge global issues, whether it’s hunger, poverty, or climate change. Being able to visualize data is essential to communicate my ideas and encourage change.”
“One of the most powerful things about storytelling is that it’s a journey. You take people someplace new and different — intellectually, emotionally, and geographically.”
Founder, Planet Forward, and Director of Strategic Initiatives, School of Media and Public Affairs, George Washington University
Providing inspiration to the next generation of changemakers
Planet Forward continues to grow and reach more people. The annual Planet Forward Summit draws hundreds of students every year to listen to keynote speeches and learn how to create high-impact stories to share their interests with the world. In 2021, the virtual summit engaged large, diverse audiences by sharing live and recorded panels that included guests Michael S. Regan, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, and legendary broadcaster Al Roker.
In the digital age, visual storytelling plays a large role in how today’s audiences absorb information, whether it’s through well-edited films, interactive animations, or engaging infographics.
“One of the most powerful things about storytelling is that it’s a journey,” says Sesno. “You take people someplace new and different — intellectually, emotionally, and geographically. It’s why Planet Forward has the potential to make such an impact.”
Frank Sesno welcoming students to the packed Planet Forward Summit at the Jack Morton Auditorium at GW.
Through key partnerships, Planet Forward aims to expand the reach of students’ messages. PBS shares Planet Forward stories as part of its “Peril and Promise“ series, bringing correspondents’ reporting to national audiences. At the same time, corporate partners, such as Comcast, work closely with the Planet Forward team to bring media and communications training to student interns.
For Planet Forward, the next step is clear: going global. “We want to partner with more universities worldwide to capture more diverse perspectives,” says Sesno. “From the project’s very early days, it was important that storytelling comes first from students. By strengthening how the next generation tells stories, we open doors for more people get inspired and positively impact the future.”
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