Higher Education and Sustainability

Sustainability is a way of life on Grand Valley’s campuses

Multiple programs indoctrinate students as soon as they arrive.

April 15, 2016
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Solar Gardens
The 17-acre Solar Gardens on the Allendale campus are a daily reminder to students about the school’s commitment to sustainability. Courtesy Consumers Energy

Almost from the second incoming students set foot on campus at Grand Valley State University, they are entering an environment that puts a special emphasis on — the environment.

It’s apparent at the Lakers’ home football games, which started going zero waste in 2013, and at convocations, another zero-waste event. It’s evident in the curriculum, where sustainability-related courses are sprinkled throughout the university’s eight colleges in addition to GVSU’s sustainability program offerings.

It’s also clear when GVSU participates in national sustainability competitions, often ranking near the top of the heap in waste reduction.

The GVSU Office of Sustainable Practices, born from the Sustainable Community Development Initiative in 2006, has transformed Grand Valley’s campus culture into one that not only recycles but also educates and fosters the importance of sustainable lifestyles.

“It requires high degrees of creativity and innovation, and it has to be done on a consistent basis,” said Norman Christopher, Office of Sustainability executive director.

“The first step is awareness, but every year we’ve got 4,000 new students and we have to create that awareness all over again. Just like any other institution, we turn over a lot of students each year so you have to do things consistently and make it a part of that culture.”

And that’s exactly what Grand Valley has done. The university’s focus on sustainability doesn’t just stop at the offices in Lake Ontario Hall, or with a specialty certification or degree emphasis. In 2010, the university added “Sustainability” as its seventh core value, injecting the initiative directly into its framework.

Christopher said there are about 200 courses related to sustainability at the university, making up about 12 percent of all credit hours offered at Grand Valley. He said it not only helps students be mindful of the importance of protecting and maintaining the campus, but gives them a leg up when it comes to post-grad life, where companies are looking for students with environmental sustainability backgrounds.

About three years ago, Christopher surveyed various companies in the workforce to determine the importance they were placing on green education. The results revealed those companies were, in fact, looking for potential employees well-versed in sustainability.

“With a base education, students can acquire a unique marketplace skillset with the learning outcome that, when they’re brought in and interviewing, they can speak to the technical skillsets they learned while they were here,” he said.

College campuses are an ideal place to foster and develop sustainable lifestyles, and Grand Valley is no different. By their very nature, students are more open to the idea of sustainability, and coming into a culture permeated by the message only helps things along.

Grand Valley isn’t slowing in its efforts to one day become a zero-waste campus. Discussions of earning a bike-friendly certification, the development of an energy management curriculum, and continued inter-campus recycling and waste reduction competitions all are ways in which GVSU is cultivating an environmentally friendly culture.

But the university also recently unveiled what Christopher calls a “game-changer.”

In a partnership with Consumers Energy, GVSU broke ground on its 17-acre Solar Gardens in October. The 11,000-panel site, located south of Pierce Avenue on 48th Street on Grand Valley’s Allendale campus, went on line earlier this spring.

“We’re just starting our journey here, but it’s a good one, and we’re fortunate to have the support and partnerships that we have here to continue it,” Christopher said.

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