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Why College Campuses Are Going Green

Alison Murtagh

For her senior art thesis at Elon University in North Carolina, Charlotte Murphy made a local farm both the subject of and the source material for her work. The 2019 grad from Essex, Vermont, used red clay soil gathered from a nearby farm to depict maps of the land and the food produced on it. "As an art major, people might think I don't have any connection to sustainability," says Murphy, who created her art "to show the connection the soil makes between farm and fork."

What's more, Murphy has been able to combine her passions for art and the environment by taking interdisciplinary classes and serving as a resident assistant for Elon's Sustainable Living Learning Community. She and seven other undergrads lived together in a dorm and participated in a range of environmentally focused activities throughout the year, such as hosting lunch discussions with professors and administrators about how to improve sustainability on campus, doing group hikes and making visits to local businesses to see examples of environmental efforts in action.

The goal, says Kelly Harer, Elon's assistant director of sustainability for education and outreach, is "to really get the students out to see what sustainability is like in a healthy, thriving community."

[Read: For Some Students, Green Concerns Could Ease Money Concerns.]

Like Elon, many colleges across the country are working to become "greener" and to impart lessons to students about how to care for the natural world around them.

Some are aiming to become "carbon neutral" -- meaning any emissions from one activity at the school are offset by removing or producing less carbon elsewhere. In 2006, presidents from 12 schools, including the University of Florida, Ball State University in Indiana and Oberlin College in Ohio, became the first signatories of the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment, which sets a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions on their campuses. Since then, more than 800 institutions have signed on.

Other institutions are planting sustainable gardens on campus to grow food for their dining halls and local communities. At the same time, many schools have expanded their academic programs to include a more diverse range of classes and full-fledged majors or concentrations in environmental studies, sustainability and other related fields. Often, as part of a class, schools embed students in positions on campus or in the community where they can participate in real-life environmental projects and case studies.

Increasingly, as universities are seeing more student demand for such programs, they are acknowledging that "this is part of their obligation as the entity that is preparing students for success in the future," says Julian Dautremont, director of programs for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, a nonprofit that promotes social and environmental responsibility at colleges and counts more than 700 campus members.

In addition to curbing carbon emissions, some schools have seen environmental interest and activism translate into initiatives to ban plastic water bottles and build or refurbish campus buildings so that they are LEED certified. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, meaning facilities have met certain energy-efficiency requirements.

The range of approaches means that many undergrads are gaining experience in both the technical aspects of environmental initiatives and the communication and advocacy that are often a part of driving change.

"Students were very involved in writing our first climate action plan" a decade ago, says Keisha Payson, associate director of sustainability at Bowdoin College in Maine, which signed the pledge in 2007.

Bowdoin officially became carbon neutral in April of last year, two years ahead of its goal. The college's sustainability implementation committee included several undergrads, and many students helped meet the goal by working to increase outreach and engagement across campus, Payson says.

"As a college, we saw that we believed strongly in committing to the common good, and addressing climate change is certainly an issue for the common good," she says. "This is us doing our part of a very large effort."

Elsewhere, the University of Colorado--Boulder introduced a carbon neutrality plan of its own in 2009, with a goal of 20% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and 50% reduction by 2030. The program was put in place after the student government declared its own initiative to move toward carbon neutrality and engage the university's 33,000-plus students, according to Dave Newport, director of the university's environmental center.

At some colleges and universities, students have the option of getting their hands dirty by working at a sustainable garden or farm on or near campus.

[Read: What You Should Know About Experiential Learning in College.]

Dickinson College in Pennsylvania has an 80-acre farm about 6 miles away that supplies food to the school's five eateries and is certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, meaning it meets a variety of standards such as protecting natural resources and preserving biodiversity. Students can work and volunteer at the farm or tap it as a resource in connection with one of their academic courses.

"We're constantly creating opportunities for students to engage in research or engage in technical-skills building that are going to inform their academics but most importantly their professional pathways," says Jenn Halpin, the farm's director.

For instance, environmental classes structure lab sessions around activities at the farm, while some religion courses have visited it to discuss Buddhism and meat consumption. Ceramic classes have used the space for pit firing (a method to finish ceramic pieces by burying them in a pit with wood and lighting it on fire), and other art classes visit to do photography. The farm has its own compost area, as well as a small methane digester to convert food waste into fuel used for the farm and to help power stoves for food preparation at two private residences on the land.

On the academic front, many universities have significantly expanded their environmental programs for undergraduates. Elon, UC--Boulder, Dickinson and Bowdoin all offer bachelor's programs in environmental studies, as do the University of Montana, the University of California--Santa Barbara and Goucher College in Baltimore.

Arizona State University's School of Sustainability offers a wide range of undergraduate and graduate programs related to the environment, the economy and society. Students can take courses in "Urban and Environmental Health" and "Sustainable Food and Farms," for example. There are approximately 680 students in ASU's sustainability degree programs at the campuses in Tempe and Mesa and online, says Lisa Murphy, director of academic services for the School of Sustainability.

The school offers a number of community-based and hands-on learning opportunities, and internships are required of all undergrads. After graduation, students have pursued careers as sustainability coordinators or analysts in the private sector or working for a city government or utility agency that oversees waste, energy or sustainability.

[Read: How to Get an Internship in College.]

Susie Puga, a senior at ASU from Wellton, Arizona, applied her knowledge to help plan a national college residential hall conference hosted at the university in 2018. As the sustainability chair for the conference, she worked to educate more than 2,000 people about how to be environmentally friendly in their own college housing, such as by reducing water and electricity use. "That was an incredible learning experience for me," Puga says.

As at Elon, ASU students can live among like-minded peers in the School of Sustainability Residential Community or join a related student organization, through which they also do field trips together and work on projects around campus -- such as zero-waste initiatives at athletic events -- and in the local area. Other schools with ecologically minded learning communities include Purdue University in Indiana and Loyola University Chicago.

Brazil native Tatsatom Gonçalves graduated in May from Middlebury College in Vermont, which established its environmental studies program in 1965. On campus, he was treasurer for the Campus Sustainability Coordinators group and a teaching assistant in the geography department. Gonçalves is pursuing a fellowship focused on energy efficiency in cities with the World Resources Institute in the District of Columbia, and he says his college experiences have been "extremely helpful to navigating the job-hunting process."

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