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College Students Need to See Sustainability in Small Steps

Author: Calli DeSerio Lambard
Published: February 10th, 2023

         As a college student who has worked in sustainability throughout my four years at school, I know firsthand how hard it can be to get college students interested in sustainability.

         I don’t mean to put down college students and say they don’t care. It’s easy to look down on young people and say they’re self-absorbed, but the majority of the college students I know do care. They’re just not in a place to take action.

The turmoil that is college

         Think back to when you first began college. The moment you set foot on campus, everything in your life changes at once. You’re living in a new place on your own while learning to exist in a tiny room with someone you’ve never met. Then there’s the pressure to make friends and the difficulty of finding them. There’s the time you spend on clubs, on homework, on working jobs to keep yourself afloat. There’s the lectures you have to attend for extra credit. Among all of these things, how can a college student not be self-absorbed?

         We tell young people this is the time to grow, but we often gloss over just how difficult the process is. Thinking about living more sustainably alongside everything I just outlined can be tough.

That isn’t to say that college students aren’t sustainability advocates; one look at the many divestment movements at colleges around the country or the robust Campus Fellowship program with the Rachel Carson Council says otherwise. Many college students are making waves at their universities, but how do we get students without the time or passion interested?

Focusing on small wins

         Working in Susquehanna University's Office of Sustainability, I’ve planned plenty of events with low attendance rates or where the same few students show up. We set up a new, easier to use recycling system, but most students didn’t even notice, despite our best efforts. Sometimes it feels like we’re shouting into a void. Environmental activism often feels this way, but colleges are such a microcosm that this issue is really put on display. 

         Even during my most frustrated moments, I can see how most college students just have other things on their plate, and sustainability is one thing that they don’t have room for. The thing is, sustainability doesn’t have to take up a large portion of your life; it’s truly not possible for many college students, as you really aren’t in control of your space or what you eat, at least not for the first year or two.

         That’s why, instead of teaching college students to make big changes in their lives, we should be emphasizing small ones, like teaching them how to properly use the recycling system around them or choosing to bring a reusable cup to Starbucks. One of our most well-attended events this year was a reusable cup giveaway where we provided free cups and an additional discount at Starbucks when you used the cup that day. We had no way of knowing if anyone would actually continue this practice, but we hoped this event would show them how simple it can be.

         Talking to other students, I’ve found that the most useful way of educating peers about climate change is just by talking with friends. When a student comes to college and makes friends who care about the environment and do things like using reusable bags or less plastic, they’re more likely to join in on the practice as well.

         Sharing knowledge might be the most important thing we can do for college students in their sustainability journey. Giving them a stake in the game and the knowledge to back it up can prepare them for a more sustainable life post graduation.

This just proves how important community is. It might be difficult for college students to change their large-scale habits, but by teaching each other to make small changes, we can make a difference.

Small goals, big impact

         Last spring, the office held an event at our campus garden with music, crafts, plant sales, and a cider press. The response from this event was huge. Our main goal was just to get people outside. It seems like such a small thing, but most students didn’t realize that a beautiful green space existed on our campus. We’re hoping we can continue to bring students out there more and get them excited about spending time outside.

         It can be as simple as that. While many college students don’t have the time or the luxury to really take action on sustainability, we should be showing them that there are some sustainable actions they can take that won’t be time consuming. They can even be fun.

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