Equipping Students with Sustainability Knowledge and Career Skills

Interview with Meghan Fay Zahniser, Executive Director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE)

Meghan Fay Zahniser has been with AASHE for 7 years this February.

Meghan Fay Zahniser is Executive Director of Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) where she leads their work with community colleges and four year institutions, supporting the idea that all graduating students should be equipped with the knowledge and tools they need to address sustainability challenges. AASHE’s role is to advance sustainability in higher education, not just by supporting institutions, but influencing workforce and the new generation of leaders, workers and employers.

Meghan helped to create a plan to prepare 20 million ecoliterate graduates by 2025 called the “Greenprint: A Plan to Prepare Community College Students for Careers in the Clean Economy: Equipping 20 Million Students with Sustainability Knowledge and Career Skills by 2025”.

Meghan (MFZ) speaks with Courtney Cochran of the National Wildlife Federation about the plan and possibilities moving forward.

Greenprint Cover Image for websiteQ: You helped develop a policy platform for advancing the role of community colleges in preparing the new workforce, aka the “Greenprint” for short. Why did you engage in this project and what do you see as its purpose?

MFZ: There’s some real potential with this kind of document to reach an audience that not many people are reaching right now and providing a platform for raising interesting questions for workforce education and how community colleges can help deliver. The need was clear and obvious to us at AASHE, with NWF spearheading. I know it will be of great interest to our members. This is something that we’re not doing and we see as valuable to our members. It will be another great tool to help spark discussion on campuses and in communities about what are we doing and what more can we do to advance sustainability and develop a green workforce.

Q: If you had to choose a top recommendation or two from the plan, which would you choose and why?

Students engaging in a PowerShift event. Photo by Xarissa Holdaway

Students engaging in a PowerShift event. Photo by Xarissa Holdaway

MFZ: AASHE is a network of sustainability leaders working to advance sustainability in higher education. It is a powerful and inspiring network and each year it continues to grow. A lot can be accomplished through learning from peer and sharing lessons learned. My top recommendation is to disseminate best practices through community college peer networks – AASHE can be a big help in this area!

I also appreciate the recommendation to make community college clean economy programs integrating sustainability skills a key focus of existing federal discretionary grants and awards across the nine federal agencies distributing these grants.

Q: What have you observed about the number, growth and types of green and clean jobs available across (your region or industry as applicable) in the last few years?

MFZ: AASHE puts out a publication every 2 years, a staffing survey to track growth and change of sustainability staff in higher education. It’s somewhat tricky to track growth because of turnover. Hundreds of people completed the survey. However, we know there are even more individuals involved in sustainability in higher ed that aren’t captured through this survey.

Sustainability in higher ed. continues to grow, especially looking at the past 10 years – AASHE’s annual conference is a prime example of this. At the 2014 conference in Portland, OR there were 2100 attendees. This year’s conference saw an attendance of 2300. There continues to be interest in “how do I help my institution advance sustainability?”

What’s interesting is there aren’t just individual or isolated sustainability positions; other jobs have increasingly added sustainability aspects within their responsibilities. It’s becoming more of a comprehensive approach. We have observed growth in not just clean and green jobs but also the number of people involved.

Students engaging in a PowerShift event. Photo by Xarissa Holdaway

Q: What roles have community colleges played, if any, in generating and meeting this demand? And how important will their roles be in the future?

MFZ: Incredibly important. Since AASHE’s inception, community colleges have been such a critical part of the sustainability movement. It’s been where individuals can go to get technical green skills and various types of Community colleges will continue to be of such importance particularly with regards to access to education, affordability, and offering content that is different in many cases than what 4 year institutions offer.

Community colleges play an important role in not just shifting the thinking of leaders of companies but helping the implementers to be sold on sustainability (blue/green collar jobs) and how they can make a difference. Community colleges are a huge strength of our movement and will continue to play a really important part moving forward.


Read Meghan’s full interview here.

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