Willamette students, staff and faculty take part in the AASHE conference

by University Communications,

It’s no surprise that sustainability is an important topic at Willamette.

To demonstrate this campuswide commitment, more than 50 students, staff and faculty members attended the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) conference in Portland from Oct. 26-29.

The Willamette delegation was led by Joe Abraham, director of the Sustainability Institute. Its members included representatives from the College of Liberal Arts, College of Law, the Atkinson Graduate School of Management and several departments, including Bon Appetit, Facilities, Print Services and Residence Life.

The group's purpose was to take advantage of the conference’s local presence to learn and share best sustainability practices.

During Sunday's opening sessions, 24 Willamette students attended break out discussions and a special keynote featuring environmental activist, Annie Leonard. Students were then able to share their thoughts from the conference via an online blog, where they reflected on what Willamette is doing well and what it should aspire to do to integrate sustainability into campus culture.

"My observations were that schools with successful sustainability programs had concrete areas of focus," notes Brenna McGown '15. "Right now, Willamette is generally focus[ed] on sustainability, yet I believe we need a concrete area of focus. This would serve to give tangible goals to an initiative."

"The majority of the sustainability projects going on at Willamette are all student organized, which is awesome," echoes Willamette student Martin Grey. "But students can only accomplish so much, without help of those who have the power to create and enforce institutional change."

Faculty members discuss curriculum

Several Willamette faculty members led discussions and break-out sessions, sharing insights on curriculum and pedagogy.

“There’s an immense amount of innovation in curriculum on campuses nationally — and that innovation is driving the greening movement,” says Wendy Petersen Boring, associate professor of history.

Petersen Boring is co-editor of the 2014 book, “Teaching Sustainability: Perspectives from the Humanities and Social Sciences,” a collection of papers and essays highlighting how sustainability is incorporated and celebrated in classrooms across the United States. At AASHE, she led two sessions with her co-editor and a number of contributors, many of whom met in person for the first time.

Joe Bowersox, Dempsey Chair in Environmental Policy, and Ron Loftus, professor of history, delivered a presentation titled “Sustainability and the Pacific Rim,” which explained Willamette’s unique program with Tokyo International University (TIU). Through the partnership, Willamette students recently participated in a 3.5-week program with TIU students in Japan, where they explored the country’s parks and trails and completed place-based service projects.

Liberal arts colleges lead the way

Representatives from liberal arts colleges comprised a good portion of AASHE attendees. A special networking session, co-hosted by Abraham and other leaders, allowed attendees from liberal arts colleges to share ideas through roundtable discussions.

Common challenges on how to define sustainability across campuses, engage participation among groups, and advocate for additional resources permeated most of the discussions. However, outstanding examples of applied learning — a common, and typically more personal experience at small colleges — have helped sustainability programs overcome challenges and flourish. The ultimate goal is creating knowledgeable, well-rounded students ready to take on challenges post-graduation.

Lisa Field '16 summed up the greater impact of access to applied learning projects in the area of sustainability.

"A more ambitious and less concrete idea, but in my opinion still important, would be working to make sure that all students leave Willamette with a solid foundation of 'sustainability literacy,'" says Field.

"If we worked to make sure students could differentiate between truly environmentally friendly products as opposed to greenwashed ones, understand why sustainability is such a buzzword, be aware of solutions to environmental problems that are happening both locally and worldwide, Willamette would be producing students much better prepared to face the challenges of our changing climate."