Campus sustainability can be a mystery, a buzzword, or a source of misunderstanding. Debates about what it really means abound, and each initiative to enhance the sustainability of a college or university campus takes a slightly different approach. Here in Canada, students are working together with faculty, administration, staff, and members of their communities to make their campuses more sustainable on more than fifty college and university campuses from the University of Victoria to the University of Prince Edward Island through the Sustainable Campuses project.

Sustainable Campuses is an initiative of the Sierra Youth Coalition, the by-youth, for-youth branch of the Sierra Club of Canada. For the past eight years, it has been empowering students to become drivers for change and to use the expertise and support available on their campuses to make the curricula, operations, and culture of the campus more sustainable. The backbone of the initiative is the Campus Sustainability Assessment Framework (CSAF), a tool to evaluate university campuses. The CSAF was developed as a result of a rigorous participatory action research process, and it incorporates 171 indicators which analyse the full breadth of sustainability – from the percentage of faculty with disabilities relative to the national percentage of adults with disabilities to the percent of energy consumed on campus that comes from renewable sources. Short-term and long-term benchmarks for many of the indicators were established as part of the framework, and a number of resources have been developed to aid students in their research.

The path to campus sustainability cannot consist of research alone; and the research could never be carried out solely by students. Equally integral to Sustainable Campuses is the initiation of a multi-stakeholder process in which students engage members of the campus community for advice and support in making their campus more sustainable. Through this process the overall sustainability of a campus can be evaluated. The group begins by identifying areas that require the most improvement and areas that can be improved the most quickly or easily, and develops a corresponding implementation strategy. The importance of this process of bringing diverse members of the campus together to instigate change cannot be overemphasized. After all, the heating system of the campus will never become more efficient without the support of Physical Plant Services, and the student health plan will never be improved without the support of the student government. An assessment does little good sitting on a shelf. Its value is derived from the subsequent analysis and changes that take place.

This sounds like a lot of work.

Students are already stretched to capacity with school, social life, and work or other extra-curricular involvement. Why would they undertake an additional research project? Why would they want to dedicate hours to engage administration who may not be inclined to be engaged? Why would they want to start a project from which they may not see any concrete results during their time on campus?

It’s hard to say what the magic is in Sustainable Campuses. It’s hard to say why it lasts well beyond other initiatives, and why students struggle on with it when it seems like nothing is ever going to change. It would seem like a lot more fun to go to a party, catch up on a favourite TV show, or simply catch up on some sleep. Still, year after year students come back. They attend the Sustainable Campuses conferences by the hundreds, they volunteer hours for conference calls, write press releases, organize campaigns, and fundraise. They share successes and offer advice to their fellow student leaders on campuses hundreds of kilometres away, and look forward to the visits of the organization’s regional coordinators as they would a close friend. Maybe they can sense that something is different here; that they are at the start of an essential movement that will fundamentally change the way campuses in Canada operate and the criteria by which campuses are evaluated. This is not an initiative that can be undertaken lightly, and is not one which can be torn apart into small, easy-to-digest pieces. This is the big picture, and the start of big changes. What better place to begin?

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Anjali is the National Coordinator for Sustainable Campuses with the Sierra Youth Coalition. She was lucky enough to be hired by SYC after finishing her undergrad in Environmental Chemistry at Queen`s University in April 2006. She loves SYC Sustainable Campuses because she thinks students are amazing to work with and because it means she gets paid to care about the environment and social justice! Her dream is to have wireless on the beach.