I came to GW a starry-eyed environmentalist.
I joined Green GW’s executive board, became a house staff member last year in former sustainability residence hall Building JJ and pitched an environmental idea for the Clinton Global Initiative University when it came to campus.
So when I learned last year that GW was going to launch an academic program in sustainability, I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of. I quickly discovered, however, that the sustainability minor wasn’t quite what I thought it would be.
Some courses left disillusioned environmentalists complaining about their teachers, who claimed a pro-business or, even worse, a pro-fracking position in class. A public health course laid out the huge hurdles to creating renewable energy sources.
This strong dose of reality was hard to hear, especially for sustainability idealists. But this isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s just what college students need.
“Sustainability” has become a sexy term. It’s a buzzword, especially across higher education, and its use at GW is no exception.
But in the program, environmentalists get more than what we asked for and are pushed outside our comfort zones.
The programs’ introductory course lays the ground for the minor. It teaches students that sustainability is not simply knowing what you can and cannot recycle, compost or throw out. Rather, it is a balance between economics, the environment and social equity. There’s a whole economic component to sustainability that many students aren’t initially aware of.
For example, an energy course in the School of Public Health and Health Services – one of many “green leaf” classes offered to minors as part of the multidisciplinary reach of sustainability – taught students about the logistics and feasibility of converting to 100 percent renewable energy.
The minor’s culminating experience is a semester-long capstone internship or project that allows students to apply our newfound knowledge in real world cases. I found myself pitching an environmental policy alternative to nonprofits that would find better ways to measure economic progress and well-being. At first, my attempts were met with hesitation. Then, a man representing the natural gas – fracking – industry came forward.
I was determined to get him on my side and I gave my pitch in a way that I knew would pique his interest. I employed the practical skills I learned in the minor, such as the ability to effectively communicate to those outside my field, and my proposal worked.
This minor is a necessary part of a serious environmentalist’s life cycle. It transforms us from idealistic activists capable of speaking about change into educated leaders capable of making change.
Only by diving into academic disciplines outside of one’s area of expertise and thinking critically about environmentalism will students gain the practical skills necessary to create real social change.
Since environmental and social progress are often tied to economics, it is essential that students looking to make a living in this field learn the tricks of the trade. And that’s what the sustainability minor and its professors have to offer.
So maybe the program is better represented by the green dollar sign than the green leaf, but practically speaking, that’s not such a bad thing at all.
The writer is a senior majoring in political science and environmental studies.