Hannah VanWagner, a student, in sunglasses with Milan Duomo in background.

Kickstarting Change for a Student and the Planet

The Stewart/Sawyer Family Endowed Scholarship Fund is part of AU’s Elevate Scholarship Initiative.

Hearts, roses, and . . . the circular economy? At first, food sustainability might not seem to have a natural connection to Valentine’s Day. But for Hannah VanWagner, CAS/BA ’23, the February holiday offered a creative chance to promote waste awareness. VanWagner is a recipient of the Stewart/Sawyer Family Endowed Scholarship Fund and is committed to environmental advocacy.

“Roses are red, violets are blue, a sustainable food system is our goal, to benefit you,” reads a post on the Instagram account VanWagner helps manage for American University’s landmark RECIPES project.

Officially titled “Multiscale Resilient, Equitable, and Circular Innovations with Partnership and Education Synergies (RECIPES) for Sustainable Food Systems,” RECIPES is a research network that studies solutions to wasted food. The project received a five-year, $15 million grant from the National Science Foundation in 2021, marking the largest externally funded award in AU history.

VanWagner’s involvement with RECIPES has been a highlight of her time at AU. The project’s focus on sustainability at the system level aligns with her own ambitions as a changemaker. After she completes her Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies, VanWagner plans to pursue her Master of Science in Sustainability Management through AU’s Kogod School of Business.

The Kogod MS program was part of VanWagner’s choice to attend AU. Business and sustainability can sometimes be posited at odds, but VanWagner sees this opposition as opportunity.

“I would say that the way a majority of businesses are operating today and have operated historically puts them at a paradox with sustainability,” VanWagner says. “I think what's important is the way that we're beginning to transition, so that they go hand in hand rather than fight against each other.”

VanWagner is a pragmatic thinker. Whether analyzing supply chains or carbon emissions, she focuses on measurable implementation and outcomes. Studying abroad in Rome for the Spring 2023 semester, VanWagner points to the city’s recycling sorting as an example of how straightforward government guidelines can result in higher public participation.

“All of the recycling and trash here is very organized and separate, and there are rules about what you can and can't put in. All the trash cans are labeled everywhere you go. It's so easy,” says VanWagner.

For VanWagner, being an AU student is about tapping into this pragmatism when given the choice of taking action or not. She sees an “obvious connection” between AU’s Change Can’t Wait campaign and environmental action.

“Change can't wait when it comes to sustainability, climate change, and all those types of related issues,” VanWagner says. “I think a lot of people think that there's such a steep curve of change that's expected, and that's not true. A lot of the technologies, a lot of the policies that we need—[they] are already existing in Europe, or even existing in the US, and it’s just compliance and understanding of the little things that need to be implemented right now. Will we need to make more technological innovations? Probably. But we don't need to wait for those to get started right now.”

AU’s celebrates this call to action through its commitment to changemakers. Prioritizing unrestricted scholarship support through the new Elevate Scholarship Initiative, AU launches students onto paths of urgent purpose.

VanWagner describes the impact of scholarships as a “kickstart” that will enable her to jump directly from undergraduate studies to graduate school and into the business world where she can implement tangible sustainability measures.

“I think, being a scholarship recipient,” she explains, “that with some of that [financial] burden being taken away, I'm allowed to reach a little bit higher from the get-go, because I have more wiggle room, thanks to the scholarship.”

After graduation and the master’s program, VanWagner plans to reach all the way. Her dream is to combine her passion for sustainability management with her love of sports. Working with professional sport leagues, she hopes to use emerging business strategies to spark industry-wide change.

For example, VanWagner calls out stadium vendors, team merchandising, and athlete travel as areas for improvement. Her goal is to help sport professionals become environmentally responsible in both word and action, implementing policies such as eco-food packaging at ballparks or team carpooling to games.

As she looks ahead to her career, VanWagner is excited to tackle these challenges as an AU graduate. She sees a pattern of impact between her scholarship support and her ambitions—a pattern that is both immediate and long-term in its potential for good.

“[Scholarship support] is helping me right now,” she explains. “It's also going to change the way that I get to go about graduate school and go about my career afterwards, and will continue to have a lasting impact.”

To learn more and support the Elevate Scholarship Initiative, visit the Elevate Scholarship Initiative web page.