Student earns Udall Scholarship for environmental studies

By Jim DeLa

New College student and Udall Scholar Lili Benitez, second from left, sits with fellow American students during off time in Costa Rica this spring.
New College student and Udall Scholar Lili Benitez, second from left, sits with fellow American students during off time in Costa Rica this spring.

A rising fourth-year student who’s already been recognized for her environmental work has been named a 2019 Udall Scholar.

Lili Benitez, an Environmental Studies/Spanish AOC, has spent the spring semester studying water quality in Costa Rica.

Since January, she’s been an intern at the Nectandra Institute, which offers education, scientific research and community outreach programs to promote the conservation of cloud forests and stewardship of watershed ecosystems in northern Costa Rica.

Benitez’s job includes taking weekly water samples from various locations. “We see how many and what kind of macroinvertebrates there are in the water. We also test pH and phosphate levels. By knowing that we can score the water quality.”

In her spare time, she’s taking several classes at the University of Costa Rica’s west campus, in San Ramon de Alajuela.

Benitez learned earlier this month she had been selected as a 2019 Udall Scholar. Only 55 students earned Udall scholarships this year, out of nearly 450 applicants nationwide. There were also 55 honorable mentions. “It’s a great honor to receive the scholarship,” Benitez said. “I was super surprised to hear about it.”

Established by Congress in 1992, the Udall Foundation, named to honor the legacy of former U.S. Rep. Morris K. Udall, awards scholarships, fellowships and internships for study in fields related to the environment and to Native Americans and Alaska Natives in fields related to health care and tribal public policy.

Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Brad Oberle nominated Benitez for the scholarship. “Lili has translated her passion for the environment into a more diverse and resilient community through research acumen and leadership,” he wrote in his recommendation letter. “Lili stands apart for her precocious research skills, her passion for the environment and her commitment to community solutions.

“Not even three years into her undergraduate education, Lili has leveraged her passion, talent and leadership to build a more resilient and diverse community on our campus and beyond. From her foundation of local experience, and current study abroad in Costa Rica, I believe that she is poised for a distinguished career as a leader in the environment,” he wrote.

Doing research in Sarasota last year, Benitez discovered that a rare plant is very sensitive to wind speed, which has already enhanced conservation efforts, Oberle said. That work earned her the Calusa Prize in Botany from Marie Selby Botanical Garden and a PLANTS grant from the Botanical Society of America.

Benitez will be coming home in a couple of weeks. “I’ve loved exploring the country. I’ve seen volcanoes and waterfalls. I’ve gained an appreciation for the nature here,” she said.

While she’s loved her internship and working with local conservation efforts, she says she’ll be happy to come home. “I miss New College. I’m a little homesick. I miss friends and family. But it’s going to be hard to leave.”

The Udall scholarship will begin to pay dividends in August, when Benitez will meet the other scholarship recipients. “I’m looking forward to meeting the other scholars, young environmentalists like myself.” She said she’ll be able to use the Udall scholarship of up to $7,000 to pay tuition, books and required fees for the upcoming school year.

Her travel expenses to Costa Rica were paid for, in part with funds from New College’s Student Research and Travel Grant program, said Nicole Gelfert, the fellowships coordinator at New College. “Lili is a terrific example of how students can use Student Research and Travel Grants to pursue enriching experiences that prepare them for even greater opportunities and recognition like the Udall,” Gelfert said.

Benitez is the eighth Udall Scholar from New College since 1996.

— Jim DeLa is digital communications coordinator at New College of Florida.


Located in Sarasota, New College of Florida has educated intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement since its founding in 1960. As the State of Florida’s designated honors college, New College provides an exceptional education that transforms students’ intellectual curiosity into personal accomplishment. The 110-acre campus on Sarasota Bay is home to more than 800 students and 80 full-time faculty engaged in interdisciplinary research and collaborative learning. New College offers nearly 40 areas of concentration for undergraduates and a master’s degree program in Data Science.

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