Sara Keene ’19 is on a journey to save the planet.
Inspired by a profound Earth Day presentation she observed as a child, Keene has devoted much of her life to making a positive environmental impact.
“One of the most memorable things from my childhood was when a woman came to our school and taught us about sustainability and how our earth is in jeopardy,” Keene said. “From that point forward, I remember thinking I wanted to save the world. And I knew it wasn’t a one-person job.”
A 2019 graduate of Illinois State University’s sustainable and renewable energy program, Keene has worked for Rivian since 2020. The growing electric vehicle (EV) manufacturer operates a 3.3-million-square-foot plant that employs more than 7,000 people in Normal, four miles west of Illinois State University’s campus, where it produces R1T pickup trucks, R1S sport utility vehicles (SUVs), and the EDV (electric delivery van) for Amazon.
Several Illinois State students have interned at Rivian, and a number of alumni are employed by the EV maker. As Rivian continues to grow its workforce, Illinois State hosted a Career Exploration with Rivian panel and networking event, which showcased the R1T and R1S in the Bone Student Center’s Brown Ballroom October 2.
“Electric vehicles are truly the wave of the future,” Keene said. “We’re in the precipice of this change from internal combustion engine vehicles to electric vehicles, and it’s just incredible to be a part of that.”
As a launch service advisor, Keene travels across the country to visit Rivian’s expanding network of service centers. She assists customers while also training and coaching new service advisors who are based at each center.
“My degree from Illinois State really helps me understand the technical side of things,” Keene said. “We did a deep dive into learning about electricity, which helps me be able to teach it. If I didn’t understand it completely, then it would be really difficult for me to teach somebody who is new with our company.”
Keene said Rivian’s trucks, built for off-road adventures, are popular because they accommodate customers’ wants and needs. The fact that they’re electric is a bonus.
“For everybody to be able to be involved in transitioning to electric vehicles, we have to meet them where they are,” Keene said. “Being a part of Rivian, I can say with certainty that we get customers who are interested because of the fact that it’s a truck, and that’s awesome.”
After working various retail, hospitality, and medical jobs for about 15 years, Keene earned an associate degree from Heartland Community College in 2017. While at Heartland, she took a career aptitude test, which, not surprisingly, suggested that she pursue environmental work. Illinois State’s sustainable and renewable energy major seemed like the perfect fit for Keene to continue her college career.
“When I got accepted, it was super exciting, and I knew that this was going to change the trajectory of my life,” Keene said.
She was initially concerned about entering the program, housed in the Department of Technology, without any technical experience. But Dr. Matt Aldeman, an associate professor of technology, quickly put Keene at ease.
“I went to my first class, and Dr. Aldeman was talking about wind velocity, and I had no idea what he was talking about. So, I met with him after class, and his willingness, and Dr. Jin Jo’s willingness to help me—not coming from a technical background—was incredible,” Keene said. “They made it understandable, and it became something that was no longer a hurdle for me.”
As a student, Keene immersed herself in the Renewable Energy Society registered student organization (RSO) and the Honors Program. She even participated in a study abroad trip.
“During my time at ISU, I definitely was just trying to absorb everything I could,” Keene said. “I wanted to learn as much as I could.”
During her senior year, in fall 2019, Rivian unveiled its design for the R1 pickup truck. “It was really exciting that this was in our backyard,” Keene said. “And I remember thinking that I wanted to work for Rivian.”
Keene spent two years managing programing at the Ecology Action Center before joining Rivian as a customer service specialist in 2020. Now, she can’t imagine working anywhere else.
“People have to get around, and to be able to be a part of a shift in something that our generation has only known to be powered by gasoline—it’s really cool,” Keene said. “It’s very fulfilling, and I come to work every day excited, and I know that I’m doing a good thing.”
Keene returned to Illinois State University October 13 to receive the Department of Technology’s Outstanding Young Alumni Award. She also spoke with a group of nearly 50 high school students who were visiting campus as part of the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded SUPERCHARGE program.
Keene said students who are interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), should consider what she’s found to be an impactful and personally rewarding career in the sustainable and renewable energy field.
“I’m not doing this alone,” Keene said. “This is a movement. We’re working toward saving the planet. For me, it’s very fulfilling.”
Sara Keene ’19 is on a journey to save the planet.