Big Red Going Green: Cultivating Sustainability at WKU

Aug 11, 2021 | News

By Sally Jean Wegert

Tucked away on the outskirts of Western Kentucky University’s campus is a community that does things differently. There, the right decision is not always what is easiest, or even necessarily what is most cost-effective, but what is “best practice,” meaning whatever has the highest return on investment and the least environmental impact.

With an entrance marked by salvaged stone from demolished university buildings and a front lawn teeming with plant life and growing produce, the space itself is enough to catch the eye.

For Alexis Corbin, student ambassador for the Office of Sustainability at WKU, being recognized as one of the “kooky sustainability people” on campus has become commonplace. She said she sees a disparity between the university community’s perception of the Office of Sustainability’s work and their actual purposes, and aims to bridge that gap through continuing to raise awareness of the positive, lasting impacts of promoting intersectional sustainability.

“People who are administrators on campus are like, ‘Well, I don’t get it. Why doesn’t that place look super trimmed and proper and like every other house on the block?’ We’re trying to communicate to them that that’s not what we do.”

The WKU Office of Sustainability, housed in a residence built in 1931, serves as a best practice sustainability demonstration home – a fully “green” building showcasing well-researched, practical solutions to improving the performance of the average home.

Christian Ryan, WKU’s Sustainability Coordinator, originally recognized the potential value in making the aging residence into a sustainability best practice demonstration home. Originally, the house had no insulation and was not energy efficient, providing what Ryan called a “clean slate” to modify and update the structure to demonstrate best practices, and then make the yard a sustainable landscape.

“We wanted to model all these things because our students are going to be future homeowners, so let’s figure out what the best way to make a house that was built in 1930 efficient and sustainable,” Ryan said. “We’ll do the research and we’ll provide the answers, so that when students spend time here they can see those things.”

Ryan described the Office of Sustainability as a kind of “living laboratory” learning environment for students, and noted that very few campuses in the region have an actual house serving as a demonstration home for best practices in sustainability. Berea College’s department of Sustainability and Environmental Studies House functions similarly as a teaching facility for sustainable practices, but unlike WKU’s Office of Sustainability, is not electricity net-zero, meaning it generates enough solar energy to offset office use.

Making Strides in the State

While in the past 10 years WKU has made valuable accomplishments in their efforts to become a more sustainable institution, the university did not always prioritize minimizing their environmental impact. However, in 2007, after Ryan finished her master’s thesis – a thorough examination of WKU’s environmental performance at the time – the Office of Sustainability, as well as the position of Sustainability Coordinator, were created with her in mind.

Since the establishment of the Office of Sustainability, conservation and efficiency initiatives have reduced WKU’s energy use by 25 percent.

The next year, WKU became a member of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), joining a number of other Kentucky universities – Eastern Kentucky University, University of Kentucky, Morehead State University, Berea College and University of Louisville.

In 2010, WKU elected to become a charter member of AASHE’s Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS), which provides a comprehensive measurement system for advancing sustainability in all sectors of higher education. WKU earned STARS Silver status in 2012.

Public recognition of WKU’s sustainability efforts increased in recent years. WKU was one of nine institutions honored with the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools Postsecondary Sustainability award in 2015, the first university-level recipient of the award in Kentucky.

In 2016, the university was included in The Princeton Review’s Guide to 361 Green Colleges for the eighth consecutive year. Additionally, the University of Louisville Center for Environmental Policy and Management recently published an Organics Recovery Program Development Tool for Colleges and Universities that profiled WKU’s composting program as a model for other institutions.

The Student Agenda

Leading by example through the continuing success of her own student initiative, Christian Ryan works daily with WKU students to develop their ideas into achievable projects.

Many of the programs at the Office of Sustainability, such as Big Red Bikes, a free bicycle rental program to provide alternative transportation to the WKU community, began as student initiatives that became institutionalized by the university. Project Grow, a campus-driven fellowship tasked with maintaining a community garden, lends garden space in the office’s backyard to members of the community interested in growing their own food. Surplus food from the garden is donated to the WKU Food Pantry, a resource open to WKU students, faculty and staff, that is supported entirely with donations from the community.

“I always tell students: ‘You have so much power, you don’t even know,’” Ryan said. “One of the lessons that I learned early on in this position is that students need to set the agenda for sustainability. And there has been no lack of that.”

While sustainable living may constantly be in the forefront of the minds of student workers at the Office of Sustainability, Ryan said she is aware that a majority of campus does not share her perspective. For this reason, one of the office’s major goals is to engage parts of campus that are not typically associated with sustainability.

In February 2017, Green Squirrel of Approval, an office certification program intended to encourage WKU faculty and staff to further engage in making the university a more sustainable place to work and learn. Based on the success, the Office of Sustainability is considering implementing a similar program for residence halls in the fall 2017 semester, Ryan said.

Outside the Office

In accordance with AASHE requirements, WKU developed a survey to assess the culture of sustainability within the campus community, both faculty and students alike. Students developed the questions for the survey in an Environmental Ethics course during the fall 2016 semester, and the survey received 483 responses during the month of April 2017.

Cara Walters, a junior studying environmental science, played a significant role in crafting the sustainability values, behaviors, and awareness survey.

“In our class, when we were combining all of our questions together, there was way too much we wanted to know,” said Walters, 19. “It was ridiculous. Narrowing it down to the most important things was so hard. We wanted to know things we could see a trend in, things that were actually quantitative. Asking questions that people were going to honestly answer was a big priority too.”

Because of the unique student contributions in the creation of the sustainability survey, Walters submitted a proposal to present her work at the AASHE conference this upcoming October. The survey will be conducted annually to measure progress and trends in WKU’s campus culture.

“Really we just want to know what matters to students and what we should be prioritizing,” Ryan said. “A lot of the work that we’ve done on campus and what resonates most with our students is local food and agriculture. And that makes perfect sense, particularly for our students that are from this region.”

Because of WKU’s 20-year contract with Aramark for dining and catering services, implementing sustainable practices related to food service on campus can sometimes pose difficulties. When acting in a sustainable manner requires a change in university policy, such as implementing reusable to-go containers in Fresh Food Company, the Office of Sustainability relies on outside help from the Student Government Association’s sustainability committee.

“The fact that SGA has a very visible commitment to sustainability by creating a permanent SGA committee – that just speaks volumes,” Ryan said. “It sends a message to our entire campus community. They have a platform that the Office of Sustainability doesn’t have. Students listen to SGA.”

Members of the Student Government Association go beyond simply advocating for policy changes in meetings with university administration, but also dedicate personal time to the causes they support, whether that be tabling outside Fresh Food Company to raise awareness for new to-go containers, or cleaning up garbage after football games.

Savannah Molyneaux, chair of SGA’s sustainability committee, became involved in SGA after a piece of legislation she proposed her freshman year was passed.  While she said she believes the university has ample room for growth in the realm of sustainability, she has hope for WKU’s future as sustainability education becomes more integrated into campus culture.

“Once you start educating people about the importance of sustainability, even in small ways, they really do listen and start to support it,” Molyneaux said. “Sustainability isn’t exclusive. Every single person can be sustainable.”

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