When Lauren Knapp’s mother was cleaning out the attic, she came across a note that provided a clue about her daughter’s future.

The 5-year-old said she didn’t like her mother using plastic bags because she believed they killed trees. Although she’s now a college graduate, Lauren still cares about trees, along with the rest of the natural world.

After studying art for a year at Georgia State University, she decided to pursue a degree in renewable energy. An Internet search quickly turned up Illinois State, the first in the nation with a renewable energy program, which started in 2008.

“What ISU was doing really aligned with what I wanted to do,” she said. “I really wanted to make a difference.”

So she packed up and moved in the middle of her sophomore year because there were only six spots available and she didn’t want to sink to a wait list. Now the 2011 graduate is seeking a master’s program in natural resources or environmental ethics and dreams of running her own nonprofit, teaching women in impoverished nations how to use solar-powered water purification systems.

Her dream began at Illinois State because of a program that’s preparing students for careers in biofuels, wind and solar energy and regulatory and governmental agencies. And it’s received significant support by corporate donors. These partners also provide internship and career opportunities. Knapp met with wind farm landowners and conducted wind industry research as an intern at Iberdrola Renewables in Chicago. She reduced her student loans with an academic scholarship from  the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, a Wisconsin nonprofit.

“This program is the real deal,” she said. “Renewable energy is at the core of sustainability. Getting our name and reputation out there is crucial. A lot of people are looking for help with sustainability/renewable energy issues.”

And she also sees the need for additional funding. Turner Hall has a wind turbine lab but it needs additional equipment to teach students how to work on the turbines.

Whenever Knapp meets someone new, she shares her ideas about sustainability.

“That’s my takeaway,” she said. “I like spreading the word on renewable energy, sustainability or environmentalism.”