- Associated Press - Sunday, March 20, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A growing coalition of students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has worked to improve environmental sustainability on campus and beyond for the last five years.

The Environmental Sustainability Committee has spearheaded efforts to reduce waste at Memorial Stadium on game days, reduce energy and water use, eliminate Styrofoam from campus food courts and coffee shops and improve recycling infrastructure across campus.

Students who have served on the committee past and present will tell you they are just getting started.

The Lincoln Journal Star (https://bit.ly/1WrKs3E ) reports that with nearly 70 percent of UNL students who voted in the spring elections backing a Green Fund, and a bike share program scheduled to go online this fall, the committee will soon expand its influence beyond campus.

Hoping to find a flourishing sustainability program at UNL, Matan Gill instead found a “hodgepodge” group of administrators and loosely-knit student groups serving as campus arms to larger environmentalist activist organizations when he started at UNL in 2010.

Recognizing the need for a broad coalition focused on results, Gill, a native of Israel who helped rework his high school’s recycling program in Papillion and who learned to make biodiesel fuel with his father, decided to start one.

“It wasn’t that I’m more passionate about these topics than anyone else,” he said. “I just saw a big need and saw the right environment to make something happen.”

The first Environmental Sustainability Committee was a small group appointed by the Association of Students of the University of Nebraska.

After teaming up with Justin Solomon, who was then running for president of ASUN, Gill wrote legislation that made the committee part of student government bylaws.

“The biggest thing making the committee an official ASUN committee did was give students who were very passionate about these issues a formal place to go and a body to speak through,” said Solomon, who is now the director of finance for Aisle C in Lincoln.

“It was a way of organizing and having access to leaders on campus, which in my opinion, is irreplaceable.”

Gill said the goal of the committee outlined in the legislation called for a student group dedicated to “think more about real solutions” rather than practice activism and hold big demonstrations.

Other students, like Reed Brodersen, who would eventually become the committee chairman, said growing up on a farm helped him connect to the environment and the possibilities for developing real solutions for sustainability and conservation at UNL.

“I think as a whole the student body just woke up to the idea,” Brodersen said. “We had some great allies in the Daily Nebraskan who were covering sustainability really, really well, and it really helped key administration to pay more attention.

“The move to the Big Ten was vital,” he added, “and really opened administration’s eyes to issues we were behind on to schools like Penn State and Michigan State.”

As the Environmental Sustainability Committee picked up steam in its efforts to bring awareness and affect real change on campus, broader interest in environmental issues has exploded at UNL.

When Dave Gosselin was named director of UNL’s Environmental Studies department in 2008, there were roughly 80 students enrolled in the program requiring 13 credit hours of study.

According to Gosselin, every student pursuing an environmental studies major is required to complete an orientation course followed by two lecture classes and a community experience course before completing a senior thesis or research project.

In that first year, Gosselin said about 100 credit hours were taken in the Environmental Studies program. This year, Gosselin said the department counts 120 students enrolled in the dual-major program, but faculty will teach some 700 credit hours.

“If you look on a national scale, there is certainly a growing interest among students coming out of high school in the area of environment and this business of sustainability,” Gosselin said.

A survey of more than 12,000 graduating high school students and their parents published by the Princeton Review in its annual “College Hope Survey” found that 60 percent indicated a university’s “commitment to environmental issues from academic offerings to practices concerning energy use, recycling, etc.” played a part in their college choice.

Although Gosselin cited doubts that the existing sustainability efforts in postsecondary education were an active recruiting tool, he said the increasing interest of students on campus is undeniable.

“The number of students declaring Environmental Studies early has increased, but the majority of those students come in after they’ve been at the university and found out about us,” he said.

Sara Cooper, a former academic coordinator of the Environmental Studies program who is now a state science coordinator through the Nebraska Department of Education, said the program tended to attract “a lot of lost souls.”

“I think we were getting a lot of students who are less ‘me-centered’ and really looking at ways they can make a difference and have an impact that goes beyond their life,” Cooper said.

Students also saw benefit in how the program was modeled, with its focus on community engagement and how students can impact their world locally beyond simply attending protests.

“When you start thinking about any career field, there’s a place to think about the environment and the effects of that work field on the environment,” Cooper said. “That appeals to a lot of students.”

Last year, Thien Chau was the first Environmental Sustainability Committee chairman to be elected president of ASUN on a platform of sustainability. By virtue of that position, he also had a seat on the NU Board of Regents.

The senior environmental studies and political science major said students from different academic backgrounds have begun flocking to the organization.

“It has really branched out to different networks of people,” he said. “Different science majors, journalism, global studies, math, engineers, physics — you are able to add people who think more broadly, and we started thinking more as a cohesive unit to rally our efforts into specific projects.”

UNL’s student government and the Environmental Sustainability Committee have sought to foster that interest by creating the Environmental Leadership Program, which Gill said was an important step to maintaining the committee’s effectiveness over time.

“We were such a productive committee, everyone was so passionate and put so much time and effort into the projects that we didn’t want to lose that after the cycle of seniors I was in left,” he said.

As a farm team of sorts for the committee, the Environmental Leadership Program helps freshmen and sophomores interested in environmental issues and student government to “get ready for ASUN and really know what they’re talking about, how to write a bill, how to work with the administration,” Gill explained.

Morgan Battes, a junior natural resources and environmental economics major from Shawnee, Kansas, joined the leadership program as a freshman before joining the sustainability committee. She chairs the committee this year.

While she was in the leadership program, Battes helped launch the “Greeks Going Green” initiative in her sophomore year after she saw her sorority’s recycling program underachieving.

Now, 28 of the 40 Greek houses on campus have appointed members to oversee their respective houses’ recycling programs and educate other members. Battes said the goal over the next year is to develop a structured training program for the recycling leaders.

“For me, it’s about making simple changes that everyone can do that make a big impact,” Battes said.

Nearly 70 percent of the 5,440 students who cast ballots in this spring’s ASUN elections voted in support of the Green Fund — a $1 fee for student-led sustainability projects.

Brodersen, who was key in launching a bike share program that will include 15 stations with more than 100 bikes across Lincoln later this year, said the creation of the fund will be one of the committee’s “crown jewels.”

“It shows students are ready to put their money where their mouth is,” he said.

UNL will see the benefits, Brodersen said, of creative solutions to sustainability problems, like adding more water bottle refilling stations to cut down on the number of plastic bottles being thrown away, and implementing more peer-to-peer education.

Brodersen envisions “green representatives” being available in campus dorms 5-10 hours a week as sustainability resources for students. Those representatives could be paid through the fund, he said.

The next “natural step” for UNL, one which the committee has been exploring, Chau said, is reducing food waste and increasing composting efforts.

Battes said committee leaders are hoping to help determine how Green Funds are spent and working to make events like New Student Enrollment more environmentally friendly by cutting back on paper use.

“We want to give new students a taste of all the really great things we’re doing,” she said. “We’re encouraging more iPad and tablet use instead of using paper, and asking students to bring water bottles instead of buying them.”

Prabhakar Shrestha, UNL’s sustainability coordinator and one of the founding members of the committee, said the Green Fund will allow students to take up projects that will have a lasting impact on campus — as well as bolster their resume and appeal to employers.

The broad support among UNL students for the Green Fund also has an influence beyond campus, Brodersen said.

“This really sends a message to the city, too, that this is something young people are excited about.”


Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, https://www.journalstar.com

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