The Hixon Center goes to AASHE!

BY: LOUIS SPANIAS, Sustainability Program Manager

I have been involved in campus sustainability on college campuses since I was a sophomore in college. After being heavily involved with UC Berkeley’s Residential Sustainability Program and Student Environmental Resource Center, I developed a passion for sustainability in higher education. I strongly believe that the college campus is, at present, where the most critical opportunity is for students to learn about environmental issues. On top of that, it is an ideal time for academics and sustainability professionals like myself to teach students how to engage in sustainable living practices. I am passionate about my work, because having only recently been a student, I can speak to and showcase the importance and impact that my education has had on me when it comes to environmental sustainability.

With that said, I was incredibly excited to attend the National Conference of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education in Baltimore, Maryland from October 9th to October 11th. It is the largest conference of its kind in the world, and I knew it would be a great opportunity for me as a fairly new professional in the field to meet other sustainability managers and learn about best practices from them. There would be a lot that I could learn and bring back to Harvey Mudd College.

The conference kicked off with a highly passionate opening keynote address by Marc Edwards, the Charles Lunsford Professor of Civil Engineering at Virginia Tech. Dr. Edwards led the research teams that uncovered the disastrous water quality problems in Flint, Michigan and in Washington, D.C. In his keynote speech, Dr. Edwards went into depth about each of these incidents, and shared how he risked his career by challenging government agencies such as water districts and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after they dismissed the public health risks of contaminated water in those cities. Not only did he emphasize the importance of sticking to your values, but how being an academic should not exclude someone from acting in the name of public health and environmental quality. His passionate appeal for action on these issues, regardless of personal risk, was an inspiring way to begin the AASHE National Conference.

What followed were a number of case study and networking sessions that were insightful and informative. Two of the sessions I attended actually included presenters from the Claremont Colleges: Warren Biggins (Sustainability Manager, Pitzer College) and Alexis Reyes (Assistant Director of Sustainability, Pomona College). Each shared their experiences with move-out programs that helped to salvage left over items for re-sale, and Alexis shared information about the Eco-Reps program at Pomona. Other sessions I attended included a program about a Pac-12 initiative to make sporting events zero waste, a program about laboratory recycling, and another about establishing student-fee sourced green funds. In each of these programs, colleges from around the country shared their challenges, benefits, and lessons learned. Sessions like these were encouraging, because it reminded me that while some sustainability initiatives have rocky starts, success can be achieved with persistence, constant reflection, and the appropriate adjustments.

Towards the end of the conference, I attended a small panel which discussed carbon neutrality on college campuses. The panel, which included Clara Fang (Citizen’s Climate Lobby), Eban Goodstein (Director, Bard College Center for Environmental Policy), Mike Kensler (Director, Office of Sustainability, Auburn University), and Daniel Greenberg (CEO – Custom Academic Programs in Ecovillages), engaged in a truly interesting discussion regarding whether or not carbon neutrality should be the goal of a college campus. There is some controversy as to whether or not going carbon neutral helps to mitigate overall emissions and tackle climate change, but the panel insisted that discussing carbon neutrality is simply one step towards a path of getting institutions of higher education to seriously address climate change. It was a highly spirited discussion, and it reminded me not to forget the big picture, and how colleges have a role to play when it comes to addressing climate change and other environmental issues.

The conference closed with a wonderful keynote address from Marcia Chatelain, a historian of African American life and culture, and an Associate Professor at Georgetown University. Dr. Chatelain is the creator of the #fergusonsyllabus, which was designed to encourage educators across the country to seriously discuss the events in Ferguson, Missouri back in 2014. Her work inspired crowdsourcing to produce a number of online syllabi to educate people across the country about race, African American history, civil rights, and policing. It was a great way to remind conference attendees that even in sustainability education, we should make an effort to discuss social and economic disparity, social movements, diversity, and make an effort to move towards more inclusive teaching and education.

Having now returned from AASHE, I find myself reinvigorated after weeks of preparing to host our own conference, and I feel ready to take on a number of projects and initiatives within the Hixon Center to educate students at Harvey Mudd how to live sustainably, as well as to help make our campus a more environmentally sustainable and climate-conscious institution.