UA Planet Forward Storyfest finalists attend summit in Washington


Halley Hughes (center) at the Planet Forward Summit where she won the Storyfest’s ‘most creative’ category. (Courtesy Drew Sangerman).

Erika Howlett

Three University of Arizona students became storytelling finalists in the annual Planet Forward Storyfest in April. One Wildcat won in the “most creative story” category.

The finalists, along with several other UA students, faculty and staff, attended the 2023 Planet Forward Summit, which took place in Washington, D.C. April 20 and 21. There, they enjoyed guest speakers, workshops and the chance to collaborate with and learn from students, journalists, researchers, industry leaders and more. 

Planet Forward’s mission is to engage college students with environmental storytelling, such as through their annual Storyfest contest. 

The UA is one of Planet Forward’s pillar schools in their consortium. As such, the UA selects one or two students each year to serve as correspondents. Any student can submit their writing to Planet Forward, but correspondents receive a stipend, mentorship and workshops that help them develop their science communication skills. 

At the UA, this program is facilitated by the Arizona Institute for Resilience. Kevin Bonine is the director of educational initiatives at AIR, and one of his goals is to provide students with academic opportunities outside of the classroom. 

“Our collaboration with Planet Forward, which is based out of The George Washington University, provides another platform for us to engage University of Arizona students in communication around environment and climate resilience,” Bonine said.

Halley Hughes, a graduating senior who studied natural resources and urban and regional development, won in the creativity category, making this the second year in a row she has won an award at the Planet Forward Summit. 

She worked on multiple stories throughout this past year and two became finalists. The winning story was “Reconciliación en mi Río: Stewardship of the Santa Cruz River.” Hughes was inspired to look for environmental solutions in Tucson that aren’t well-known.

“I think that it was an incredible experience for a scientist who had no experience in communication to have this kind of opportunity,” Hughes said. “Planet Forward is incredibly open to you exploring your own ideas and passions and the stories you want to tell.” 

This July, Hughes and the other Storyfest winners will be on an expedition to Iceland, where they each will produce two stories on their experience. 

Eight members of the indigenous correspondents program of Planet Forward stand in front of a TV screen displaying the Planet Forward logo.
Members of the Indigenous Correspondents Program inaugural cohort stand together, including JoRee LaFrance (far right). (Courtesy Lisa Palmer)

The other two finalists from the UA were Chris Zatarain, whose story “The Sound of Mountains Melting: A musical meditation on emotions in a world in crisis” was a finalist in the “most creative” category, and JoRee LaFrance.

LaFrance’s submission, “Crow Cowboys: A Story of Responsibility, Respect & Resilience,” was a finalist in the “most compelling character” category and tells the story of several generations of an Indigenous ranching family in Montana.

“I really wanted to capture their livelihood and really try to understand some of the changes that they’ve been seeing due to climate change,” LaFrance said.

LaFrance applied to be a correspondent, but ended up working with AIR and Planet Forward to help found her own version of the program specifically for Indigenous students from different universities. She attended last year’s summit to announce the Ilíiaitchik: Indigenous Correspondents Program, which has now finished its inaugural year, as members participated in a panel at the 2023 summit. Three members, including LaFrance, were finalists in the Storyfest. 

“It was really such a full-circle moment,” LaFrance said. “I can’t express how happy my heart is to be back again and to start recruiting for our next cohort.” 

To look out for future updates on next year’s competition, follow Planet Forward on Twitter @planet_forward or on Instagram @planetforward.

“I would recommend it to anyone who’s super into storytelling,” Hughes said. “It’s an experience that can change your life.”

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