While Petrini sat sweating out his chemistry final in Goddard Hall, the polar ice caps in Antarctica were melting, setting the stage for disastrous flooding in the Pacific. That was the year the island nation of Fiji began using satellites to monitor sea levels—documenting a rise of 90 millimeters to date. For residents of those low-lying islands, just two degrees of global warming can be a matter of life or death.
Petrini wasn’t worried about Fiji back then. He’d have had a hard time locating it on a map. “FIJI” in his world was on the corner of Boynton and Salisbury streets, where Phi Gamma Delta fraternity—rival to his beloved Alpha Tau Omega—enlivened their parties with bamboo tiki torches. He had no idea that two decades after graduation, he’d be pulling a very serious type of all-nighter—supporting representatives from the Pacific Islands in late-night negotiations for a global agreement on climate change.
“I was there in the room when the Paris Accord was adopted,” he relates, the awe in his voice coming through strong and clear over a long-distance Skype connection. “It was an amazing moment in history.”
Fiji—which he now calls home—was the first nation to ratify the watershed 2015 agreement.
Back in the early 1990s, words like carbon footprint and zero emissions weren’t in the everyday vocabulary of most Americans. There wasn’t an academic track for students who wanted to save the planet.
Although WPI students were addressing environmental issues around the globe through projects, an environmental engineering degree program was more than a decade away.
Petrini had found his happy place. A first-generation college student, he came to WPI with a strong attraction to math and science, but no clear career plans. He chose chemical engineering as a major. He pledged the ATO fraternity and bonded with a great community of friends. He even embraced his English classes. In Modern British Literature, he discovered James Joyce, and for his Humanities Sufficiency took on Ulysses, a 700-page albatross full of cryptic references and passages in eight different languages, including Gaelic, Greek, and Hebrew. Petrini liked it because it was challenging, like his engineering courses. “Reading a normal book—I can do that easily. But Ulysses was amazing.”