Students advance sustainable change, new growth experiences in Climate Action Commitment update
What does it take to get a network of nearly 125 students, faculty, and staff from across a wide range of units, and representatives from the wider community moving together toward the same goal?
How about in an environment that has gone fully virtual?
The students engaged in the Virginia Tech Climate Action Commitment revision and renewal process learned that collective commitment to a cause – in this instance advancing climate action and sustainability at Virginia Tech – can be a catalyzing force that propels real action. It is this commitment that kept the revision process moving since late 2019, despite all going on in the world.
This is just one of the many insights the more than 60 undergraduate and graduate students involved with in the Climate Action Commitment working group and subcommittees have gleaned working alongside university and community leaders.
Approved initially in 2009 by the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors and revised in 2013, the Virginia Tech Climate Action Commitment serves as the university’s guiding framework around sustainability and energy efficiency in campus operations, facilities, curriculum, and research.
In late 2019, President Tim Sands called for its renewal and revision to ensure the most stringent climate and sustainability standards are implemented as Virginia Tech continues to grow and seeks to be a leader in environmental stewardship.
The working group leading this charge delivered its final recommendations to Senior Vice President and Chief Business Officer Dwayne Pinkney on July 15. Once the final report is reviewed by Pinkney, it will move on to university governance for final approval and implementation in the fall.
Climate Action Commitment revision focus areas include energy management, food waste, alternative transportation, and more. Through participation in working group and subcommittee meetings, brainstorming sessions, and community engagement events, students involved in the revision process have had countless opportunities to gain practical sustainability experience.
That is on top of all the highly valuable soft skills they have accumulated throughout the process — communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, and navigating the deliberative process.
“The Climate Action Commitment revision process is one of the best opportunities I have had to play a hands-on role in driving climate adaptation change. While we come from different backgrounds — faculty, staff, students, industry leaders — we’re all linked by a passion for environmental stewardship at Virginia Tech and in our community,” said Allie Kahl, who participated in the Community Engagement Subcommittee and many other subcommittees as a graduate assistant supporting the effort. “Throughout this unique process I have learned the importance of project management skills and developing a sound strategy in moving a large institution toward sustainability. It has been an incredibly beneficial professional development experience.”
Kahl recently graduated with a master’s in urban and regional planning in Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs within the College of Architecture and Urban Studies and will start a Ph.D. program at the University of Tennessee Knoxville this fall.
The need for balance between high-level rigorous sustainability goals and achieving attainable change has been a common observation among student participants working on the updates.
A sound strategy is the connective link among these pieces, and the pathway forward, the students have found.
“To advance an institution-wide commitment that needs to be approved through governance, the most beneficial thing I learned is that strategy needs to be a priority. In a group of like-minded individuals, idealistic goals are very easy to come up with. It is how we move these goals forward in a real world setting that is critical,” shared working group member Drew Harris.
Harris recently graduated from Virginia Tech in May with a B.S. in mechanical engineering and a minor in green engineering from the College of Engineering. During his time at Virginia Tech, he also served as an energy analyst with the Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities. Harris will soon start his next role as consultant at Guidehouse in Washington, D.C.
“As a college student, I want to make a difference and I want change to happen now. This experience has taught me the importance of planning and mobilizing a well-thought-out solution versus rushing in with a quick, short-term fix,” added Owen Callahan, also a member of the working group.
Callahan is a rising senior majoring in applied psychology within the College of Science and is also the Student Government Associate at-large.
Whether they realized it or not, resiliency was another quality garnered by all participants, including students. When COVID-19 required a shift to a fully virtual environment, the working group and subcommittees were still able to collaborate and draft their recommendations — and host an extensive community engagement process to gain additional feedback — amidst the COVID-19 emergency.
Student engagement in the Climate Action Commitment updates process is just one of the many opportunities students can take advantage of to get involved in sustainability at Virginia Tech. Other opportunities include the award-winning Office of Sustainability Internship Program, the Green RFP Program, participation in clubs like the Environmental Coalition, and many more activities.