Isabelle Shepherd started a green team in high school.
Roman Taylor was learning about sustainability back in grade school.
Nick Marks was in college a few years when he discovered a real passion for conservation.
At some point in their college lives, the three West Virginia University students met Clement Solomon, director of the Office of Sustainability at WVU, and began a journey that has pushed them toward their career passions and fulfilling lives.
Their campus has become their classroom.
Shepherd says she views her classes as half of her education, with a quarter coming from her job in sustainability and the rest from student organizations and activities.
Shepherd is one of 12 interns at the Office of Sustainability this year three years ago there was just one. That first one was Amelia Martin, who has since graduated and is now apprenticing at a Certified Naturally Grown farm in Pennsylvania as well as working for the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund.
WVU sustainability interns are majoring in engineering, business, rural development, multidisciplinary studies and political science. They come from West Virginia, Virginia, New Jersey, Maryland and beyond.
“Learning must have consequences in a real-world context,” Solomon said. “The entire ‘campus as classroom’ model focuses on an educational experience that moves from a culture of merely reduction and analysis to synthesis and integration of what we know and can know.”
Along with Solomon, the students are the sustainability program at WVU. They believe in different things—but it’s taken them to the same place.
Shepherd grew up in Short Gap, W.Va., where her mother instilled in her a love of her natural surroundings. But it helped that she grew up in this state.
“I think a lot of students here in West Virginia are incredibly interested in the environment, whether they consider themselves sustainable or not,” she said. “We grow up in the woods. How can you not feel some sort of connection?”
You can tell that the direct, fast-talking college junior has been organizing for a long time. Shepherd started a green team at Frankfort High School where 600 area students studied. At first, kids scoffed at the small band of students on a mission. But within a year, they wanted to be cool, too. They wanted the club T-shirts and brought in large sacks of recyclable material on collection days.
Shepherd’s pitch to other students is not based solely in ideals but also a realistic calculation you’d expect from a political scientist who wants to become an attorney.
Turning down the heat a little in their homes will reduce unnecessary energy consumption. That’s true. But it will also save them money, she says.
“Honestly, what college student doesn’t need more money?” she asks.
At the Office of Sustainability, Shepherd organizes volunteers for events such as Sustainability Awareness Week and Earth Week, and maintains the office’s online presence. Before she worked here, she’d never had a ‘real job’ in an office that was about more than selling a product.
Each of the students will tell you about Solomon; the effect he and the program he began has had on them.
“He’s taught me to see the big picture,” she said. “It’s not just about our goals; it’s about moving the University forward, and how do we make our goals fit into that picture, which I think is the most effective way to get things done.
“I want to do this to make the University proud and to move the University forward because students are going to begin looking at our green scores. They’re going to start wondering what we’re doing, and I want to give them an answer.”
Shepherd says it’s a job she loves.
“I believe that this is a cause that someone needs to take,” she said. “It’s hard for many people to see how these small changes result in a huge reward for our world, but that’s what it’s all aboutthe small battles, the constant fight for our planet. And I’ve always been up for a challenge.”
Before Roman Taylor studied exhaust emissions versus public transportation as an intern with the Office of Sustainability, he and his roommates drove to class separately.
Now they carpool.
He studied how emissions vary based on how many students are driving Morgantown’s congested roads to class versus taking the Public Rapid Transit system.
After finding out how much carbon dioxide was being sent into the air needlessly when people take their own cars, he’s changed his perspective and has tried to work harder to live sustainably.
“Knowing that kind of made me realize that even though I’m working in sustainability, I wasn’t really living it,” he said.
Taylor, 21, grew up in Hurricane, W.Va., where he became interested in sustainability at an early age. He was in a sustainability club in high school that recycled items that many would throw away. Sometimes, the club even sorted recyclable items from every trashcan in the school.
But it was in 5th grade when he knew he was interested in alternative energy. For him, sustainability is about bettering humanity and every living thing on the planet.
He found the Office of Sustainability when he was looking for a job after transferring to WVU from Virginia Tech. He had done some work in biofuels and was eager to make connections with people in similar fields at WVU.
A chemical engineering junior, Taylor has compiled data and participated in Mountaineers Recycle, an innovative WVU program that allows interested students and the University community to encourage recycling at tailgating before home football games.
He believes students are becoming more aware of sustainability, and it’s becoming more popular in the college population in general as the recent popularity of the Evive Station at WVU attests.
Evive Station, a company that Isabelle Shepherd also interns with, offers a water bottle system pioneered by alums at WVU this year. It helps students to make use of reusable bottles versus disposable bottles by providing bottle cleaning and refilling stations, as well as stainless steel bottles. So far, approximately 4,000 students at WVU are using the system as part of the initial launch, and it is expected to grow across the campus and spread to other universities.
Taylor expects to go on to study for a master’s degree and then probably a Ph.D. During that time he expects to decide on whether he’ll pursue battery efficiency or nuclear technology.
“I’m really into future technology,” he said. “It’s just the next step.”
In the office, each student has a specialty. While Taylor is focused on energy efficiency, others focus on agriculture, waste management, recycling and outreach.
He thinks that’s the way to tackle sustainability.
“You don’t have to grasp everything,” he said. “You just have to grasp one topic or area so that even if you don’t practice everything, you’re practicing something.”
Nick Marks had no idea what to do with his life. After his sophomore year in college he had already changed majors four times.
He was home in Boonton, N.J., over that summer reading a magazine article on sustainability and global climate change.
“It hit me like a truck. ‘I know what I’m going to do now,’” he thought. ”’I’m going to go with sustainability because it’s necessary.’”
Marks says he’s happier now. He’s pursuing his beliefs with a “wonderful group of people” and works for a boss who is willing to give him shelter when his heater breaks during the winter.
Though his title is event coordinator, he’s branched out into several areas. He’s recently worked on the University’s waste audit of every dining hall, possibly the largest waste audit at a university in the country, and is studying the possibilities of recycling cooking oil into biodiesel.
The waste audit collected data on how much trash, recyclable and compostable material is generated at the dining halls in an effort to minimize the amount sent to landfills.
Marks, 23, majored in multidisciplinary studies with concentrations in business administration, entrepreneurship and leadership before he graduated this spring. He’ll still be working with the office this summer. It’s the entrepreneurship that has informed his approach to exploring biodiesel for WVU as he researches the best way to try something new.
“Why are we paying almost $4 a gallon for diesel fuel when we can produce an equal but alternative fuel for almost half the price?” he says of biofuels.
He’s gained experience that he can use in graduate school or as an entrepreneur.
“I’ve learned a lot in the sense of how things work in the business world,” he said. “They can teach you until your brain falls out but until you actually experience it, it doesn’t really have the same impact.”
Marks is one of the interns that has been with the program the longest. He’s seen it grow to be competitive with other universities, especially in areas such as the building retrofits that vastly cut down on energy usage and will also save millions of dollars for the University over time.
Students are increasingly interested at events, especially the green aspect of ESPN College GameDay’s visit when the show’s green team and WVU’s Sustainability Office got together to educate students on recycling. GameDay brought a trash toss game that WVU has since adopted. It is an adaptation of corn hole that separates trash from compost and recyclables.
“I have never seen so many people interested,” he said. “When we were there on GameDay everybody wanted to play this game.”
He believes the close bond between Morgantown as a community and WVU will help both become more sustainable together.
WVU’s sustainablility program has melded, in a handful of years, existing elements such as the PRT with recycling, energy efficiency, green cleaning products, transportation, dining and student engagement.
“I’m really proud of the program that we have here, truthfully,” Marks said. “We’re making a lot of progress.”
To find out more about WVU’s sustainable programs, go to http://wecan.wvu.edu.
By Diana Mazzella
CONTACT: Clement Solomon, Office of Sustainability
Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.