Sustainability – President’s Challenge

Julie R. White
State University of New York – ESF

In her March 20, 2006 address, ACPA President Jeanne Steffes challenged Student Affairs professionals to “rise to play a greater role”. In doing so, she suggested that, as a profession, we continue our good work – helping to prepare students to be ethical, judicious, and participatory citizens – though through the more progressive and intention lens of sustainability. At the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) in Syracuse, sustainability has long been our mission. And, in the last few years, it has been the active commitment of our students to sustainability that has shaped many of our efforts in student affairs.

ESF was founded in 1911 and looked to serve the broad needs of environmental professionalism. As other forestry schools became more specialized, ESF expanded its scope to include such essentials of environmental science as design, engineering, life sciences and resource management. The college is a doctoral-granting institution, one of only 13 in the 64-campus SUNY system, with highly focused research and service programs that reach across the globe in the search for new knowledge and a mission to improve the quality of life. About 2,000 students are enrolled at the college, the vast majority of whom are from New York.

In April 2001, the ESF college community engaged in a strategic planning process aimed at renewing shared values, building on current strengths, and positioning ESF competitively to embrace the challenges and opportunities the future will bring. The college’s history of exploring and responding to society’s needs and environmental issues has prepared ESF to pursue many new initiatives. Students have been part of this “Vision 2020” process since its inception.

Vision 2020 calls for, among other things, enriched academic excellence, an outstanding student experience, and responding to the needs of society. The triangulation of these agendas focuses on renewable energy and materials, sustainable systems and communities, and conservation. These objectives are being actualized through initiatives such as a pervasive service-learning curriculum, the desire for a “green” student center, increased experiential learning opportunities for students and community outreach.

Our students live ESF’s mission and we in student affairs are now answering the call in more intentional and direct ways. For example, we have built service-learning into our first year experience program. Students are introduced to our commitment to service the first weekend they are on campus. Partnering with the department of Parks and Recreation, our entire first year class engages in service projects throughout the city of Syracuse. While the actual value of the work is immeasurable, more important perhaps is the introduction the students get to the larger community and the sense that they have some responsibility to it. This commitment to service is further solidified during the first year via our “Students In Action” learning community. Students take coordinated sections of a writing course and participate in at least three community service projects throughout the fall semester. We have found that this immediate introduction to ESF’s “culture of service” has an impressive ripple effect as students continue in their academic career here. In addition to our efforts in the first year, we work hand-in-hand with our faculty to offer service-learning courses. To date, more than 60 of our 300 undergraduate courses have incorporated service and our local community and students are mutual benefactors of that effort. In 2005-2006 our students contributed over 63,000 of service to our local community through service-learning courses and community service activities. This translates into over 30 hours of service per student! What we have found (and capitalized on) is that students like to make a difference while learning about their passions. In our case, that’s making the world a better place! We continue to enhance these efforts by presenting an annual “President’s Award” that recognizes the contributions of one individual student, one student organization, and one faculty member who incorporates service into their curriculum.

Three years ago, students challenged the institution to better “practice what we teach.” The “Green Campus Initiative” was born from that challenge and other programmatic efforts. Students have provided motivation for the entire college community to make some significant impacts. With our President as the quintessential partner, the Green Campus Initiative has inspired the installation of a fuel cell on our campus, a green roof on one of our academic buildings, no mow zones in our landscape, and a fleet of hybrid vehicles. The Class of 2004 demonstrated their social responsibility in a very practical and symbolic way. Their class gift to the College was the retirement of 4,800 air pollution credits via the Acid Rain Retirement Fund. Additionally, at the request of our students, each year the career services office sponsors an environmental career fair which promotes “green” career opportunities and organizations.

Whether it be the students involved in the Green Campus Initiative or those who have traveled to Dominica with our chapter of Engineers Without Borders, the simple truth is that students want to and will make a difference if we give them the opportunity and freedom to do so. This is an extremely socially conscious student population and our best lessons will be taught through their awareness and dedication.

How better to facilitate and build community than to help beautify one? How better to introduce students to and groom the concepts of citizenship than to give students the opportunity to partner with community organizations to make a difference? How better to teach the tenets of interdependence than to introduce students to the connectedness of all parts of the environment? How better to help students understand themselves than to actively and intentionally challenge them to consider others?

ESF’s commitment to sustainability is inherent in what we do. However, ESF’s active engagement is top-down, bottom-up, and comes into focus from every direction! What has made our efforts in sustainability successful? Commitment, partnerships, and educational value. Students work with physical plant personnel to identify and implement “green” practices on our campus. Our president challenges our faculty and students to contribute more and more to the local community. ESF faculty have seen the benefits of service learning and continue to employ it. Our students work with each other and our student affairs staff to facilitate programs that promote sustainable practices and education.

At ESF, the student affairs staff indeed works to foster ethical and just social systems and healthy ecosystems. We approach this agenda in the exact same ways student affairs professionals have always worked to meet needs – by involving students, meeting them where they are and challenging them to go a step further. This is actualized by tapping into their passion, working with other campus constituents, and actively engaging community partners.

Here is a list of replicable programs/efforts that other campuses may consider:

  • Campus Day of Community Service: We do this once each semester and invite all members of the campus community to engage in service at multiple sites throughout the city.
  • Learning Community Focus: We’ve linked service to a writing course for one of our residential communities.
  • Student Organizations: We work with a number of student organizations whose mission is sustainability: Habitat for Humanity, Green Campus Initiative, Outing Club (trail maintenance). We help to publicize the activity of these groups and involve them in our campus-wide efforts.
  • Service Learning Courses: We work with faculty to coordinate the service components of their courses. This may involve working directly with agencies and/or the logistics of the actual project.
  • Student Involvement in Campus Dialogues: We are ever-conscious of our role to involve students at every level of decision-making. Students are members of campus committees and are often consulted and looked to for input relative to campus action and/or programming efforts (e.g. Green Campus Initiative).

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