U of M Student at a National Sustainability Conference: Unpacking What I Learned
Jessica is a UMN sophomore studying Environmental Sciences, Policy, & Management and Professional Journalism. She started working for Sustainability Education in Fall of 2018 and attended the 2019 Conference of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education as a representative of the Sustainability Education team.
The human tendency to come together and tackle big problems has been guiding us towards solutions since the beginning of civilization. Fast forward thousands of years to October, 2019 in Spokane, WA, where about 2,000 university students, faculty, and staff traveled across the country – or even the globe – by train, plane, car, and bus to share ideas and co-create solutions to the social and environmental problems that threaten our future. This meeting was the 2019 Conference of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. And here is what one U of M student brought home.
Human connection is a powerful tool and students have it mastered.
It’s impossible not to feel energized when surrounded by thousands of individuals wholeheartedly committed to the betterment of our planet and future. At AASHE, I met countless students who’ve given up many of the leisures of college life to start a fossil fuel divestment campaign or convince their university to introduce local foods into its dining system. Realizing how much other students have accomplished gave me fresh resolve to roll up my sleeves and get to work here at the U. As students, we may be busy, stressed, and pulled in too many directions – but that we still have so much power to create change. Now is the time to take advantage of that.
The University of Minnesota has grounds for pride, but our work isn’t done.
I was shocked to learn how many college campuses around the country don’t have an office of sustainability, let alone any full-time staff dedicated to making the campus more sustainable. Here at the U we have not only the Office of Sustainability, but Sustainability Education at the Institute on the Environment, as well as many other departments with sustainability goals and commitments. We have a cascade of resources that other schools can’t even begin to imagine. But, this wealth of resources and information needs to be managed and navigated. It’s easy to repeat efforts or fall out of touch with people and initiatives across the Twin Cities campus, let alone the five campus University of Minnesota system. Efforts to stay connected, like the IonE Educators program and SELFsustain retreat for students make a difference. However, I think we still have a lot of wisdom to gain and partnerships to explore right here in Minnesota.
We have a deadline, and we can’t lose hope.
The climate clock is ticking. We have a narrow window to make real change, so every contribution counts. This narrow window is frightening, but as Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement and a keynote speaker at AASHE, put it, it’s also a gift. After all, deadlines elicit action (think about the wonders that hours of cramming can produce just in time for an 11:59 Canvas deadline). Take a minute to ask yourself what you’ve done. After AASHE, I was ashamed to realize that I haven’t been as effective as I want. Sure, I avoid single-use plastics, minimize personal food waste, and buy second-hand clothes. But I’m well aware that’s not enough. It’s time for me to transition from personal behavior to political involvement – that’s the best way I can think of to personally be effective.
This looks different for everyone. Maybe you diligently use organics recycling. You can step it up a notch and convince your friends to use organics, too. Or maybe you confront management in your apartment to ask that organics be introduced to the building and work with them until they finally follow through. Whatever sustainable cause you’re passionate about, there’s always a way to take it to the next level. Sometimes we just need a little push over the edge, and I’m grateful to my AASHE experience for dealing me a firm one.
When thousands of minds meet in the same space with a unified goal over the course of several days it becomes impossible to escape the contagious energy of possibility. Yet, I’m most excited about what these students, faculty, and staff are going to bring home to their campuses. Who’s going to be recognized at the 2020 AASHE conference for convincing their Board of Regents to divest from fossil fuels? How much will universities across the country reduce their emissions? And of course, what will the University of Minnesota have to show? That’s our job, and it’s time to get to work.