Environment, sustainability issues to frame Earth Day activities at SJSU

Dr. Mary A. Papazian

Earth Day 2019—and the various activities we have planned at SJSU this month to celebrate and acknowledge this important day—reminds me, as it should all of us, that sustainability remains one of the big issues of our time. San Jose State continues to be an innovative leader in this area, particularly in our buildings and facilities, but also in our academic programs and co-curricular initiatives led by our Division of Student Affairs.

It was not always this way, however. Prior to the establishment of the SJSU Office of Sustainability last October, our sustainability efforts were focused primarily on the “greening” of buildings and facilities. While those two areas remain vital, our sustainability coordinator, Kristen Wonder, and our energy and sustainability analyst, Debbie Andres, helped the university’s leadership team come to the realization that effective sustainability efforts must entail wide-ranging elements that needed to be housed under a campus-wide resource.

So Kristen, Debbie and their small but dedicated team now focus on a variety of environmental and sustainability issues that we hope will make us one of the “greenest” and most sustainable campuses in America. To do this successfully will require an interdisciplinary approach and a great deal of focus and commitment.

Food on campus—both a reduction in food waste but also an increase in the amount of “real” food we offer—needs to be a priority. Much of our unused food inventory is now being donated to our food pantry, while other food waste is locally composted.

We have had discussions with students and previous food service providers and started to see tangible progress at one point, but lasting change is hard. Helping students and others on campus understand issues around food is one of the ongoing goals of our Office of Sustainability.

Lest I forget our superb work in regards to facilities, buildings and even water conservation, I would like to highlight some awards we have collected recently.

Last year, our campus received the Association of Physical Plant Administrators’ 2018 Sustainability Innovation Award, which was especially meaningful for SJSU as we were evaluated on both our operations and our curriculum. The award is a testament to the holistic approach we have taken, with the support of our Sustainability Board.

In addition, San Jose State received a 2018 Silicon Valley Water Conservation Award and was designated as one of the Best Workplaces for Commuters in 2018 by the National Center for Transit Research at the University of South Florida.

Our ongoing efforts have been recognized by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education in its 2017 Sustainable Campus Index, with San Jose State ranking second in the United States and Canada for reducing waste and receiving a Gold ranking based on the association’s Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System.

So SJSU is doing well in many key areas. Our environmental leadership has a long tradition, in fact, as the founder of Earth Day is SJSU alum Gaylord A. Nelson, ’39 Political Science and ’60 Honorary Master of Arts. He went on to a distinguished career as U.S. Senator and governor of Wisconsin.

But where do we go from here? And how can we sustain our position as a leader on the environment and at the same time create a sustainable culture on campus?

The answer, I believe, goes back to the multi-disciplinary approach I mentioned earlier.

Though we are very proud, of course, of SJSU’s Department of Environmental Studies and its leadership in our sustainability efforts, becoming a truly sustainable campus must involve everyone, not just students and faculty in one department. We want all of our students to graduate with a firm understanding of what it means to be sustainable and to gain an appreciation of how their personal actions and the choices they make can have either a positive or negative impact on our environment. How can economists and business majors, for example, be included in the conversation and add to the discussion? How can other disciplines contribute in meaningful ways? And how can our faculty incorporate sustainability features into their curricula?

That last point is a perfect lead-in to this year’s Earth Day celebrations at SJSU, which is actually more of an Earth Week at SJSU that will run from April 15 through April 19. We have so many things going on with sustainability that we needed a full week to showcase them all!

SJSU celebrates Earth Day with activities on Tower Lawn April 19, 2018.

As you can see, the week will be absolutely packed and will offer fun, informative and educational events that should appeal to everyone. Included, for example, will be a Green Career Panel; a “talk and walk” along Coyote Creek at Williams Street Park; open classroom sessions on global climate change, sustainable agriculture and landscape photography; poetry readings at King Library focused on water and fire; and so much more. And I have not even mentioned the flagship event: Earth Day San Jose on Thursday, April 18, taking place right here on Tower Lawn. Dozens of vendors, workshops, music, games, food, a new tree ribbon cutting ceremony and even a petting zoo will all be present.

For me, perhaps the most exciting feature for us this year is that 80 SJSU faculty members have signed up for our Earth Week “teach-in.” Our sustainability team, with professor Katherine Cushing leading the way, conceived of a teach-in as a way to encourage our faculty and academic community to include Earth Week issues into their academic syllabi. They have responded in a big way.

Some faculty members, for example, are bringing their entire class to one of our events and creating an assignment based on that event. Others will stage an “open classroom” where anyone on campus can join in on the environmental conversation.

I am delighted to be leading a campus so dedicated to making this university one of the most environmentally sound in America. We are committed to staying focused, making smart decisions about our natural resources, and learning about vital environmental issues as we strive to ensure that everyone who passes through our gates leaves with a commitment to making good personal decisions about the way we treat the Earth.

If we hold true to these values, we know we will be doing our part to enhance the health of our shared planet.