ISU Graduates Must “Sustain” Sustainability For a Better Future

This is my last week working full-time in the Office of Sustainability. That does not mean, however, that my work is nearly finished. Rather, it has just begun. Those who are passionate about sustainability know that it is not simply a trend. It is a way of life. It is questioning the impact of every decision you make; on other people, on the economy, and the planet. It is asking what kind of world you want to live in, and what kind of world you want to leave behind. Sustainability is not a new idea, but as we begin to experience the consequences of living as though our planet has an infinite amount of natural resources, it is more important than ever before.

I came to this position because Illinois State University not only gave me the opportunity to explore my interests, but the ability to do something about them. I did not know what ‘sustainability’ meant as an impressionable freshman. The Office of Sustainability did not even formally exist at that time. Two years and four academic major changes later, I began studying renewable energy and became an Off-Campus Senator in Student Government. Part of my responsibilities involved serving on external committees, one of which was this shadowy “sustainability committee,” charged with allocating $45,000.00 on projects to enhance the campus environment, and demonstrate the meaning of the term. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the very existence of this committee was due to the passion and hard work of an ISU student the semester prior. Dorian Moore, someone I have never met, changed my life. Moore served as Secretary of Sustainability during the 2009-2010 academic year. In that position, he brought forward a referendum to students asking if they wanted to levy a fee for sustainable campus projects. The referendum passed overwhelmingly. In response, the Board of Trustees, who had already vowed not to levy new fees, decided to set money aside to honor the will of the student body.

I enjoyed the work of the committee so much as an Off-Campus Senator that the next year I applied for and secured an appointment as Secretary of Sustainability. In this position I was charged with leading the work of the committee: reviewing applications, giving the proposal authors an opportunity to present their projects, and voting on allocating funding. The work made possible by this fund has been truly incredible. It was used to purchase a biodiesel reactor, which is converting campus waste fryer oil from the dining centers into biofuel that is run in campus fleet vehicles. The production of the biodiesel was integrated into an agriculture class that I was fortunate enough to take as part of the renewable energy curriculum. The fund also paid for an ecological assessment and oak savanna restoration plan for the overgrown patch of land in between Cardinal Court and Facilities Management.  The goal is to turn this plot into an environmental learning laboratory and recreation space for residents of Cardinal Court and the surrounding community.  The fund purchased educational materials for a water conservation awareness and behavior change program that was implemented in East Campus. Measurements of water usage showed a dramatic decrease following implementation of the program. It purchased an apiary with six beehives, prompting the creation of the ISU Beekeepers. It purchased rain barrels, and bike racks. In short, it has been wildly successful. And those were only a few of the projects in the first two years. Next year, the fund reaches $180,000.00, and will continue at that level annually.

All of this success can be traced back to the vision and determination of one student who  used his voice to make ISU a more sustainable campus. To me, the story of the creation of the student sustainability fund illustrates the difference that one can make if only he or she is passionate and works hard. In working at student government, and in my current position at the Office of Sustainability, I have found that Illinois State University has an administration that is responsive to the demands of students. But if no students speak up, how is the administration to know what they want? The administration is built on a model of shared governance. Indeed, students make up half of the Academic Senate. But that model only works if students advocate for their best interests.

As a Program Manager at the Office of Sustainability, I have been fortunate to work under the tutelage of Melissa (Missy) Nergard. She is a terrific resource for any student that wants to explore their interest in sustainability, or apply to the student sustainability fund with a project of their own. Missy has extensive knowledge of campus operations and academics, as well as general trends and practices pertaining to sustainability in higher education. The Office has hosted internships for students from a variety of majors on campus, ranging from Library Sciences, Accounting, and Psychology, to Renewable Energy. The broadness of sustainability allows the Office to accommodate a range of skills and interests. To explore yours, simply send Missy an e-mail. She is wonderful to work with.

As I reflect on my time in this Office (only two very brief semesters!), I think about all the amazing people at Illinois State University, and everything I have learned from them. One of the projects I worked on was assembling the 2010-2012 Biennial Report on Sustainability. The report provides a broad overview of campus sustainability efforts in the categories of Students, Academics, and Operations. Check it out here. Reading through it, one can feel the passion on this campus; the faculty conducting groundbreaking research on complicated waste-to-energy programs; the students hosting events to promote and educate the public on electric vehicles; the operational staff improving energy efficiency and conservation in University buildings; and the graduate students serving with the Peace Corps. In 2008, President Bowman signed onto the American College and Universities President’ Climate Commitment, indicating the University’s will to act on the most important challenge of our generation. What we need now are responsible graduates who will take what they have learned here, and use their positions outside the university to act on that challenge.

–Matthew Tomlin