Sara Merken: How GW can make sustainability cool

In the near-perfect world that is living on a college campus, many students, myself included, don’t have to worry about paying utility bills. We sing too many songs in the shower, leave the lights on in our rooms when we go to class and keep our chargers plugged into outlets all day.

As college students, it’s too easy to forget about living green lifestyles because our minds are so focused on other things. But we can’t forget about sustainability and just move on – there’s more we can do to save water and energy.

GW has implemented multiple programs throughout the past few years to become a more sustainable campus, in addition to making a sustainability strategic plan. Officials have launched initiatives targeted at students like Green Move-Out and the annual Eco-Challenge, which students have historically failed.

Sustainability is already something that higher education officials know is important to promote at their schools. But to engage students with green initiatives, GW needs to make sustainability something cool that students want to be a part of – something that directly pertains to their interests.

Last weekend, the Earth Day Network and the Global Poverty Project hosted the Global Citizen Festival, a six-hour concert and environmental rally on the National Mall. Along with Usher, Mary J. Blige and Fall Out Boy, speakers at the event included International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde and World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim.

About 200,000 people attended the concert – and a day of bland lectures or speeches probably wouldn’t have had the same level of enthusiasm. Instead, it was an opportunity for people to watch some of their favorite artists for free while still learning about how to make the world a greener place.

GW can learn from this model and make sustainability a fun aspect of campus life that actually interests students, rather than a chore.

Meghan Chapple, the director of the Office of Sustainability, told me in an email, “We are always interested in more ways we can engage GW students in sustainability, and we need their help to become a more sustainable campus.”

There are certainly models GW can use for engaging students. Other universities have already taken a step toward creating sustainability events that grab students’ attention.

This month, the University of Illinois at Chicago is encouraging students to participate in Earth Month through events like sports games, environmental documentaries and a weeklong Bike2Campus competition, which encourages students, faculty and staff to ride bikes for one week.

“For those kinds of activities there are prizes, and there’s a competition: The more often you participate, the more likely you are to win something,” Cindy Klein-Banai, the school’s associate chancellor for sustainability, told me. She added that these events also put an environmental spin on activities that students already enjoy.

GW could also emulate Georgia Southern University’s GreenFest, which last fall featured four hours of live music, a farmers market and more than 30 vendors promoting sustainable lifestyles.

By thinking along those same lines, GW could integrate similar events into our campus life. For example, a concert in University Yard similar to Spring Fling with vendors from D.C. farmers markets could attract students looking for a fun activity on a Saturday afternoon, and would promote local agriculture.

Additionally, student organizations should strive to organize new and interesting sustainability events. As students, they’re most likely to know what their friends will enjoy or what they will ignore.

At the University of California, Berkeley, a student organization runs sustainability programming for the school’s Earth Week, and organizes events like a human oil spill demonstration and a community farm day. The group also helps to educate the student body about green initiatives, and serves as a liaison between students and the administration and faculty.

Although GW has multiple organizations concerned with specific aspects of sustainability, the student body would benefit from a student-run division of the Office of Sustainability that could give a young, fresh look at programming.

Stan Slaughter, the founder of Tall Oak Productions, an organization that teaches students how to compost, told me it’s necessary to “live your message” when encouraging others to be more eco-conscious.

When planning sustainability-related events on campuses, students and officials should “make it live, make it accessible and make it the kind of event that [students] are going to come to without guilt, because guilt tripping people doesn’t work,” Slaughter said.

Ultimately, GW is tasked with making sustainability cool, which isn’t easy. But by taking into account the types of events to which students flock, the University can add high levels of student participation to its list of successful green efforts.

Sara Merken, a sophomore majoring in journalism, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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