Putting Emphasis on Sustainability at Orientation

New students learn about BU’s green culture

It’s 8 a.m. on a Friday morning during a Freshman Orientation session and Lena Adams (SAR’19), dressed in a green T-shirt, is scraping breakfast leftovers and napkins off a sleepy freshman’s plate in the West Campus dining hall. The waste goes into a large bin to be weighed and then composted. A nearby roll of stickers proclaims, “I Cleaned My Plate.”

Elsewhere in the cafeteria, eight green-clad students are chatting with the new students and their families about the numerous ways BU’s sustainability program, sustainability@BU, is reducing waste and greenhouse gas emissions across campus and about how easy it is to recycle at BU. Their job title is sustainability ambassador, and their presence is new to BU’s annual Orientation program. After introducing themselves, they mention that BU offers 481 courses tied directly or indirectly to sustainability and talk about the two-dozen-plus student organizations comprising the Environmental Leadership Network (ELN).

“I love how every portion of the culture of what we believe in and value at BU is integrated into the Orientation community. Looking at some of our peers from the Association of American Universities has shown us that this is an innovative program,” says ambassador Victoria Chaney (CAS’18), an architectural studies major and environmental analysis and policy minor. She considers the program “a preview of a great culture.”

The ambassadors represent a change in the way sustainability is introduced through the Orientation curriculum. In the past, University sustainability director Dennis Carlberg and sustainability outreach coordinator Lisa Tornatore (CAS’02) would give a presentation along with representatives from other departments or appear as part of a panel. But they wanted to find a better way to engage with new students and promote sustainability@BU’s work.

“Orientation is often overwhelming for new students. They’re getting so much information, and it’s difficult to retain it all, especially at a time when they’re thinking not so much about their carbon footprint, but about fitting into a new place,” says Tornatore.

Last semester Carlberg and Tornatore assembled a group of students from ELN, the Community Service Center, and other organizations to brainstorm about how best to have arriving freshmen learn about BU’s sustainability program. They decided that hiring student ambassadors who would engage directly with new students would be most effective.

The nine students trained with Orientation staff, and with Carlberg and Tornatore, who also invited guests like the University’s recycling vendor, Save That Stuff, and Dining Services sustainability manager David Frank, to explain their roles in sustainability.

At each Orientation session, the student ambassadors are armed with stats. They note that 22 percent of the food served at BU comes from sustainable sources (a goal accomplished last fall, three years ahead of schedule) and that the University has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 23 percent since 2006. Further, BU has reduced its total waste by 9 percent and water consumption by 7 percent and has increased recycling from 3 percent to 39 percent during the same period. Those accomplishments have landed BU on Princeton Review’s rankings for the best green colleges.

Besides meeting informally with new students, the ambassadors have been active in every aspect of the Orientation program, giving Green Campus tours to parents, taking part in the expanded Common Ground program, where students learn how to get around Boston while solving a series of puzzles and riddles, and being at each session’s Rhett’s Night Out. Most visibly, they’ve been demonstrating how easy it is to compost at BU through the Composting Comes Out program. During the first seven Orientation sessions, the ambassadors composted a 607.73 pounds of food waste, an average of 2.3 ounces of waste per person.

“We wanted the sustainability ambassadors to be incorporated into all of Orientation, so that students can see that sustainability touches everything,” says Tornatore. “It’s become very important for our ambassadors to be a part of various activities so they can show their own experiences and how sustainability impacts their everyday activities.”

“I’m really impressed with the ambassadors as individuals, but frankly, I am most impressed with them as a team,” says Carlberg. “They work so well together, they support one another, they challenge one another in very positive and constructive ways. It’s really a cool dynamic.”

“I feel like we are a small enough group that we can collaborate effectively, but we are also big enough that we have reach,” says ambassador Saloni Shah (ENG’19), a biomedical engineering major minoring in sustainable energy. “At the end of the day, we want to have meaningful interactions.”

The ambassadors share personal stories about how they became active in environmentalism at BU. They are also resources for new students interested in joining clubs, taking courses that address sustainability, or pursuing internships or careers related to sustainability.

“We want people to see past the green shirts,” says Shah. “We don’t want people to see us and think we are going to lecture them about sustainability—that’s not what this is about for us. We aim to broaden the understanding of sustainability and make it relevant to whatever fields they’re entering.”

The ambassadors program has proven so effective that Orientation organizers say they plan to implement it again next year.

“Having student ambassadors brings sustainability to life,” says Orientation director Shiney James (CAS’99). “Incoming students are in different places in their understanding of sustainability, and having their peers talk to them about these issues instead of watching a presentation is more impactful.”

“This is one of the best things we have ever done. It’s much more effective for incoming students to actually have one-on-one conversations with other students,” says Carlberg. “I think meaningful bonds are already being made. And when they come back to school, they’re going to recognize a lot of the ambassadors and pick up some of those conversations where they left off. And they are gaining an understanding of what the University is trying to accomplish from a sustainability perspective. Certainly they’ll know what the resources are and how to get involved. I think that’s really important.”

Liz Vanderau can be reached at vanderau@bu.edu.

This story was originally published by BU Today on 9/2/16.

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