Students At the Epicenter of Campus Sustainability and Action

The article was also posted in the Second Nature Blog

Students Push for Sustainability on their Campuses

Students are the epicenter of any college or university campus.  They are the heart and soul and the reason why colleges and universities exist, and it would be a disservice to any campus if students were not engaged throughout all aspects of campus sustainability.  A myriad of lessons have been learned from engaging an estimated 460,000 student leaders hailing from 2,000 campuses over Campus Ecology’s23 years and counting of programming at the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).  During this time, the program has also awarded approximately 180 Campus Ecology Fellowships to current undergraduate and graduate students and nearly 500 internships to recent graduates.   Throughout the evolution of campus sustainability, there have been changes in approach and goals for greening one’s campus; however the one constant has always been student leadership.

Appalachian State Dining Services Image
Students understand the challenge the  United States and the rest of the world face to transition quickly from a fossil fuel-based society to one built on safe, clean renewable energy—as advocated by a majority of the world’s scientists— this is the crucible of our time.  Campus Ecology’s recent publication,“Generation E: Students Leading for a Sustainable, Clean Energy Future” explores how young people in college today are responding to this challenge, stepping up to make a difference in a wide range of creative and powerful ways. “E” stands for many things, including Ecology, Economy, Energy and Equity— which are among the interconnected concerns and values of sustainability that define and unite the current generation like no other issue of our time.

Bold Campus Climate Action

Students across the country have been lobbying their college or university president to sign the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) since its inception five years ago.  Schools like University of Oklahoma and Birmingham Southern College attribute students to the signing of the ACUPCC.  In addition, once the school has become a signatory, in many cases students are conducting the greenhouse gas inventories and helping with the climate action plans.  In 2009, Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) research conducted by John Hehir, showed that approximately 19 percent of all greenhouse gas inventories to-date were compiled by student researchers and classes.

Climate Action Planning Research Team at Ithaca College

Engaging Students Across all Sustainability Programming is Key

NWF Campus Ecology staff have been working with students across the country to assist them through the process of how to effectively lobby for the signing of the ACUPCC, and once completed how to stay on task with the different commitment steps.  In addition, staff have been instrumental in bringing sustainability staff, students and faculty together to dialogue about the priorities and issues facing campuses across the country.

It is through this work that we have found that engaging students throughout sustainability programming is strongest when it is:

  • Non-Prescriptive:  Programming that empowers student leaders to define their own vision, dreams and goals is more effective and compelling for students than efforts that prescribe exactly what students should do and how they should do it.
  • Whole Person-Oriented:  Initiatives that emphasize the whole person, fosters personal and professional development and the need for social connections are stronger than programs that focus on narrow tactics. Students are not campaign objectives, engaged simply to meet short-term tactical policy needs of an organization or campus and dispensed with when the victory is achieved.
  • Consultative:  Programs benefit from engaging students upfront in the design, outcomes, purpose, objective and even the language used to implement it.
  • Cumulative:  Programs that provide ladders and pathways for professional, career and personal growth, as well as increased leadership opportunities are stronger than programs that lead to cul-de-sacs for student leaders.  Providing connections among programs geared to various age groups and clear pathways from one to the next supporting leaders as they progress through each life stage is worth aiming towards.
  • Recognition:  In one survey after another, students tell us they want recognition.  Whether it is a certificate or title for their resume, volunteer programming is enhanced when it leads to credentials students can use to advance their academic and career goals.

As college and university campuses improve their sustainability efforts it is critical to understand the bigger picture.

Why Higher Education Matters

By the numbers in 2008

• 18 million – Number of students (with 44% of undergraduates attending two-year schools)

• 4,300 – Number of U.S. colleges & universities

• $386 billion – Annual expenditures of postsecondary institutions

The numbers alone are impressive, but perhaps more important is the fact that today’s college and university students will be the leaders in most areas of the U.S. economy in years to come. They will strongly influence the values and priorities in the country’s future use of energy, resources and political power. Although the years spent in college are just one of many forces shaping a young person, they can have a big impact not only on a student’s understanding of issues like sustainability and climate change, but also on development of the skills and habits of mind needed to successfully tackle them.

Hence, it is important to consider the campus as a microcosm of larger cities across the U.S.  and the globe.  It is the college and university setting that gives students the training and experience they need to find and create green jobs, develop solutions to climate change and have positive sustainability impacts across the world.

NWF Campus Ecology works with students, staff and faculty across the U.S. to improve overall campus sustainability efforts by providing one-on-one consultations, fellowships and internships, resources, and through networking and sharing best practices. In addition, through our Greenforce Initiative, a partnership of NWF and Jobs for the Future, we help create hands-on training opportunities for students in green career pathway programs; connecting students to campus sustainability efforts provide students the opportunity to harness green job skills while greening their campus.

To learn more about the different programs within NWF Campus Ecology, find us at