Have you ever walked into a situation not quite knowing what you’re signing up for? That was me in November, as I (virtually) sat down for my interview to become WUSA’s very first Sustainability Commissioner. I had applied a few weeks prior, not really thinking too much about it. The job description had definitely piqued my interest, though, as it spoke to the need for WUSA to advocate on behalf of students for sustainability on campus. I skimmed the qualifications, drafted a cover letter, and sent my email. A shot in the dark, I thought.
Fast forward to the interview. My lovely interviewers were somehow impressed by my passionate rambling, and I landed the job. Once the delighted surprise wore off, I suddenly realized, “Wait, what exactly did I agree to??”.
Michelle Being the first person to do anything is a pretty scary prospect. As there’s been no precedent, there’s no one you can go and consult, no websites to mine for research, no predetermined expectations you have to fill. For all intents and purposes, I started off with a blank slate. My only limitation, really, was the scope of my imagination.
One crucial thing I did right away as the new Sustainability Commissioner was to reflect on how to place myself within the “ecosystem” (forgive my environmental puns, it’s a job requirement) of sustainability on campus. My situational analysis boiled down to one fundamental question: Where can I be the most useful?
As outlined in my mandate for the WUSA Sustainability Project, my role as Commissioner is primarily to support existing sustainability groups and initiatives on campus, while identifying gaps that the University and WUSA can work to fill. This position evolved from Sustainable Campus Initiative (SCI), a student group under WUSA that was created in 2013 to further sustainability at UW. Last year, SCI was dissolved and replaced with the Sustainability Commissioner role. This move was a signal from WUSA that it intended to take its sustainability efforts more seriously going forward.
Taking on the mantle of this well-established sustainability group on campus felt intimidating. I had the pleasure of serving as the Events Lead at SCI during its very last term, and I knew how important carrying on the legacy of SCI would be. This forms a cornerstone of the new identity of the WUSA Sustainability Project.
SCI was truly a trailblazer for sustainability at UW. During its seven year tenure, students worked tirelessly under its banner to make changes that have greatly improved campus. Unfortunately, much of this work isn’t well known to the student body, myself included. It was only when I took a deep dive into the archives of old SCI end of term reports that I able to fully appreciate how far we’ve come.
Here are some of the projects that SCI spearheaded:
- The Sustainability Office (2015) – It may be hard to believe, but our beloved Sustainability Office is quite young. In 2015, SCI pushed hard for the University to hire a full time staff member to take on more of the institutional work needed to implement sustainability changes. This directly led to the hiring of Mat Thijssen, our Director of Sustainability, and the creation of the Sustainability Office. The Sustainability Office is the official hub for sustainability on campus, and they run events and projects to engage and educate the school community.
- Composting (2017) – UW Campus Compost began as a team under SCI, to address the lack of composting infrastructure on campus. After purchasing a composter (which looks like a cow and lives by Modern Languages!) and having a team of volunteers manually picking up compost for a few years, it was taken over by Plant Ops in 2017. Now, you can find four-stream waste bins everywhere on campus.
- Water bottle refilling stations (2018) – If you’ve ever enjoyed a cold drink of water after working out in CIF or PAC, you can thank SCI. SCI applied for multiple grants from endowment funds to place these refilling stations in strategic places around campus, thereby reducing the need for single use plastic bottles on campus.
- Fair Trade designation (2018) – If you were around campus pre-2018, you might’ve enjoyed some fair trade tea, chocolate, or coffee courtesy of SCI and Engineers Without Borders. They worked hard at raising awareness around the issue of sustainable sourcing, and successfully called on the University to include the goal of earning a Fair Trade designation in its 2018 Sustainability Strategy.\
- Campus thrift store (2021) – I’m very excited to share this news! Word on the street says that the WUSA Sustainability Project is working on a campus thrift store, which will hopefully open in Fall 2021, depending on COVID conditions. A campus thrift store was an idea that SCI had for years, but only recently was greenlighted. Stay tuned for updates!
In short, I have some big shoes to fill. I hope to build on all the success that SCI has built over the years, and continue to drive sustainability forward on campus. Onward!
If you have any ideas, suggestions, or questions, my inbox is always open! You can find me (Michelle) at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram and Facebook as @wusasustainability.