The Golden State was in the midst of its worst drought on record when University of California freshman Jake Soiffer took the microphone during the public statement session of the UC Board of Regents’ meeting in San Francisco last November. The topic of his comments to the 26-person committee that oversees the state university system: climate change.

Soiffer told the UC regents at that meeting — which happened to coincide with the United Nations Warsaw Climate Change Conference — that “youth are challenging their own institutions and communities to take action to halt the devastating effects of climate change,” spurred by the inability of governments to deal with the issue.

The Berkeley freshman is one of about 100 students spread across the University of California’s nine campuses who are pushing for the institution to take a stand on climate change. They want the UC system to divest its $86 billion portfolio of the world’s 200 largest fossil fuel companies to send a clear political message that the business of these companies is not morally or financially sustainable. Addressing the Board of Regents meeting was just the start. “By the time I leave Berkeley, I want to see UC divest from fossil fuel,” says Soiffer.

Three thousand miles away from Berkeley, at Middlebury College in Vermont, student groups and faculty members also have been pushing for their school to divest from fossil fuel companies. With a nearly $1 billion endowment, Middlebury is dwarfed by the UC system, but it has a reputation as a top liberal arts college and a prestigious board and alumni network. The school boasts the first environmental studies program in the U.S., and many of its students identify closely with Vermont’s intense environmentalism. Middlebury junior Fernando Sandoval Jimenez, who is majoring in environmental studies and geography, is confident that he and his fellow student activists will be successful in forcing divestiture.

“We know it is going to be a fight, but we are prepared for the fight,” he says.

Over the past two years, students at approximately 400 U.S. campuses have been pushing their universities and colleges to divest from the fossil fuel industry. The divestiture movement has spread to municipalities and public pension funds. Not since the campaign to make institutions divest from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa — a three-decade-long effort, which the fossil-fuel-free movement looks to as a model — has one issue ignited such a firestorm. To date, most institutions of any size have resisted calls to divest, but the movement is challenging these organizations to look seriously at how they allocate their assets and to reconsider some of their most closely held beliefs. For the student and environmental activists, divestiture has a political objective: to get lawmakers in Washington to put policies in place that will force fossil-fuel companies to change their behavior.