Caring for creation: Students promote green practices on campus

By Emily Alkire

11.9.19

It’s a brisk, fall morning when Averi Cumings settles onto her couch and hands me a venti vanilla latte. She’s just finished her 5 a.m. shift at the Downtown Wheaton Starbucks where she works as a barista. Cumings, a senior majoring in applied health science, is the executive vice president (EVP) of the Campus Sustainability Committee (CSC) on Student Government (SG) this year, a position that enables her to provide education, policy and programming toward sustainable efforts on campus, such as streamlining campus recycling and decreasing plastic straw usage. The role is fairly new, with this being only its second year as an elected SG position. When asked why she wanted the position, Cumings said, “Students at Wheaton don’t really know what sustainability is and they don’t know how to engage with it. I want to give students that opportunity should they choose to pursue it.”

The CSC was created as part of a new wave of conservation efforts happening at Wheaton. Junior Leilani Lu shared her excitement for numerous sustainability initiatives that have yet to take hold at Wheaton. One of those initiatives is a sustainability certificate. Lu said the certificate “will give students who are not environmental science majors the opportunity to engage [in sustainability efforts].” In order to complete the certificate, students would spend two months at the Wheaton College Science Station in the Black Hills and complete environment-based courses on campus. This would provide them with a solid foundation for understanding how to best care for the environment. Professor of Environmental Science Chris Keil said that “potential projects [at the science station] include sustainable forest management, solar energy, restoration of native species in station meadows and sustainable water management practices.” The proposal for the certificate was submitted to the administration last month and is awaiting approval.

Although some environmental efforts have succeeded at Wheaton, such as straws no longer being offered in Saga, other initiatives have struggled. Last semester, the CSC urged Wheaton administration to hire a full-time director of sustainability, but the proposal was denied. Lu was frustrated by the rejection. “We need a sustainability director, a person who is full time devoted to this cause and ideally a sustainability office,” she said. “We just need a central place to concentrate all the efforts we have.” Sophomore Annie Shand, the CSC events coordinator, is currently working on proposing a sustainability-focused chapel but is worried that the “administration might not be open to something like that.”

Compared to other universities, Wheaton’s efforts toward sustainable practices are lacking. Jessica Stenvig, a transfer sophomore and public relations manager for the CSC, shared that her interest in sustainability started while attending Loyola University Chicago where she witnessed many eco-friendly practices. For example, Loyola converts leftover cooking oil, collected from individuals, businesses and college campuses, into biodiesel to create energy and reduce waste.

Last year on CSC, Lu conducted research on sustainability efforts at Wheaton’s sister schools. Multiple colleges, including Calvin College, Illinois Wesleyan and Hope College, have a full-time staff responsible for promoting and executing sustainable practices on campus. Cumings says that “instilling sustainable efforts will make the campus more appealing for prospective students and allow Wheaton to compete with other schools that are already practicing sustainability.”

Two weeks ago, the CSC won the People’s Choice Award and a $1,000 grant in Bon Appétit’s Student Activist Grant Contest. Participating universities had to come up with projects that would improve food sustainability on campus. The CSC’s Instagram post included a photo of five of their members standing next to the softball field, their dream spot for a campus garden. “We were so shocked and blown away by the amount of people who helped win this for us. That was a huge blessing from the Lord,” Stenvig said.

Shand also shared her excitement, saying, “I think all the attention we gathered from that post, and the awareness we’re trying to bring, will make the campus more willing to implement sustainable practices.” The post garnered nearly 6,000 likes by the end of the contest, more than any other college participant’s post. If the garden proposal is passed, the committee is hoping to break ground and start planting by spring 2020. The CSC plans to donate the food produced from the garden to local shelters as well as the campus dining hall.

While the CSC prioritizes enacting policies on campus, Wheaton’s chapter of A Rocha (Portuguese for “the Rock”) is a student-led environmental awareness club which is more focused on providing students with hands-on engagement with sustainability. Junior Janey Lienau, a cabinet member on A Rocha, described its overall purpose, saying, “We want to do more things that actually engage students with sustainability as opposed to just talking about it.” In October, A Rocha hosted a composting workshop on the Stupe Patio. Students moved to and from multiple workstations while Professor of Biology Nadine Rorem meticulously drilled holes into the compost bins.

“We gave out about 50 compost bins to students and taught them how to compost and take care of it,” Lienau said. “I followed up with a couple of the students afterward, and they’re doing really well.” Lu, who is president of A Rocha, also commented on the positive outcome of her club’s first event. “We ran out of bins. People were excited to make a bin and do something hands on.”

A Rocha plans to host more events like the composting workshop. On Nov. 12, the club is hosting a sustainable eating event in Saga. The food-based event will feature demonstrations by a chef to help students learn how to cook environmentally-friendly and plant-based meals. A Rocha also plans to hand out stickers to those who commit to setting aside one meat-free day a week. Lu is hoping that having this event in Saga will help attract a wide range of students at Wheaton and allow A Rocha to promote practical sustainable efforts that anyone can be a part of.

Still, it is clear that interest is still lacking in environmentalism on Wheaton’s campus. “We need a paradigm shift in the culture,” Lu said. “Sustainability is not yet a priority. Compared to racial diversity — that’s huge and we’re getting going with that, which is great. We want to see similar weight given to sustainability on campus, on every level: leadership, students and residence halls.” Most members of CSC and A Rocha emphasized how their faith plays an immense role in their passion for sustainability. Stenvig said, “We were made by the creator and given dominion over this earth. That doesn’t mean destroying it; that means caring for the earth like the father cares for us.”

“I feel like it’s my calling to put that on Christians’ minds and to change the air around sustainability in a Christian setting,” Cumings said. “There are ways to incorporate sustainability into all disciplines and all aspects of life.”

Although the Wheaton community is hasn’t fully adjusted to discussions about environmentally-conscious practices, these ideas can become the norm with the right promotion, education and action. Cumings and the CSC are hard at work trying to cater to students’ interests and views. “We’re trying to identify how to best address sustainability and how to present it so that it’s more likely to be received by students and faculty in different fields,” she said. Shand added, “We’re finding new ways to reach out, because we don’t have any precedent for what we’ve done in the past. We’re forging our own path for the future of our committee, which is really cool, but it’s also a little daunting.”

Throughout trials and triumphs at Wheaton, both A Rocha and the CSC have made it clear that they are here to stay. If Shand is sure of one thing, it’s this: “I look at the world around me and realize that we can take care of it, we can make it better and the only thing stopping us from helping it, even in small ways, is ourselves.”

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