Cheyenne Minniss blazes new trails for sustainability on campus

Cheyenne Minniss is a senior majoring in mechanical engineering. In her spare time she also enjoys exercising. She is currently a part of the Iowa State University Boxing Club. “I like to work out for the mental aspect for accomplishing those goals, and the physical results will follow, but the purpose to be in the gym is more the mental space,” Minniss said.

Katherine Kealey

On Fridays, if the weather allows, Cheyenne Minniss, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, can be found on the steps of Beardshear Hall striking against Iowa State University’s conversion from coal-fired boilers to natural gas. 

As the President of Climate Reality Campus Corp, Minniss has spent her senior year organizing strikes and a protest to advocate for clean energy. But Minniss wasn’t always an outspoken individual.

The now activist recalled being “painfully shy” and concerned about others’ opinions of her growing up. As one of the only people of color in her predominantly white K-12 education, Minniss said she never wanted attention drawn to herself because she already felt out of place. 

“It was kind of a cookie cutter model that I was trying to fit into, but couldn’t,” Minniss said. “I wanted people to always accept me. I felt like I would always try, and do, people-pleasing at every point.”

One day as a grade-schooler, Minniss was confiding in her mother. Stressed to the verge of tears about appeasing an ideal, her mother bestowed a simple piece of advice that caused Minniss to have an epiphany.

“Baby,” her mom finally said to her. “Your thoughts and your opinions are the ones you hear the most. You wake up and you hear your thoughts. You go to sleep; you hear your thoughts. So those are the thoughts that matter and should help you to make your decisions.”

After that moment, Minniss’ thinking did a 180. Since then, she has always fallen back on these words to give her confidence. Minniss was involved in just about every activity she could outside of her studies, from theater to band, math league, student council, basketball, volleyball and yearbook. 

“I genuinely think without that advice I would be a completely different person. I would still be that shy girl who doesn’t want to make any waves. Now I am like ‘let’s ride those waves.’”

Clean energy piqued Minniss’s interest in the third grade when her teacher informed her only 3 percent of the earth’s water is fresh, and 2 percent of that is frozen. 

“All life on this plant and we have one percent?” Minniss recalls thinking to herself. “I’mma have to do something about that.”

While Minniss always wanted to be a fashion designer, she experienced the stereotypical senior year crisis.

“I do love clothes, and I do love fashion, but is that what I am meant for?” Minniss recalled thinking as a senior. “I just feel like I am supposed to do something more. Fashion can always be a hobby so then I was like ‘dang it I am good at math.”

When deciding what university to attend, Iowa State’s marketing around sustainability stood out to Minniss. She assumed a school that advertised a minor in wind energy was the place for her to pursue her passion, only to find Iowa State University stopped offering the courses. Minniss described Iowa State’s advertisement as “greenwashing.” 

“I came because of sustainability,” Minniss said. “Now that I see it is kind of lacking, I definitely want to see it be where they are advertising at.”

When she arrived at Iowa State University, she went down the path of mechanical engineering because of the broadness of the field. But engineering, in particular, suited her because she believes engineers can help people on a large scale.

“I can make the important decisions that are actually influencing these changes,” Minniss said. “It is not just that I am coming up with these ideas and trying to take a political avenue of doing it. I am physically making these things and physically implementing them and ensuring they are being put into these communities and doing their specific purpose.” 

Regardless of Minniss’ ambition, she still considers herself an introvert at heart. To recharge, she likes to take time for herself to cook or learn new information, such as financial planning. But among her engineering peers, she is typically the one to take charge.

“We can’t all be introverts,” Minniss said.

Minniss thrives on the competitive nature of engineering. Coming from a town of predominantly white people, Minniss said being a woman of color in a space dominated by white males is familiar.

While this doesn’t intimidate Minniss, she has experienced times when she says something, and it falls on deaf ears, only to have her peers receive appreciation and credit for repeating the same comment.

Whether in her major or during strikes, Minniss said her experiences with students and faculty at Iowa State have been positive overall. Even though she protests against the university’s actions, Minniss said Iowa State administrators often stop by Climate Reality’s strikes and ask the best questions. 

But her experiences with state education leaders differ. During the September Board of Regents meeting, Climate Reality was not able to speak during the public comment section due to the meeting concluding early. Minniss said the regents stonewalled her organization so they couldn’t speak in their true power.

With Iowa State University’s motto being “innovate at Iowa State,” Minniss called on the leadership to lead by example on issues relating to sustainability.

“I want to be a leader, that means walking a path that isn’t always the easiest path,” Minniss said. “That means blazing a new trail for people to then follow behind you, that is what I believe is what a leader is. To see my leadership at my school not do that is pretty discouraging because that is what I envision leadership, and they are not doing that.”