To reach carbon neutrality, the Office of Sustainability builds bridges to the entire American University community. And within that office, dedicated interns—called student sustainability educators—play an important role at AU.
These interns engage with their fellow students about AU’s environmental mission, while encouraging people to adopt better consumption habits on campus. And they’ve managed to do all of this in fun, creative ways. Three student sustainability educators, Danielle Smith, Faith Lewis, and Matilda Kitabwalla, discuss their contributions to AU’s sustainability goals.
Since Danielle Smith is a senior, she didn’t think she’d be around when AU became carbon neutral. The initial goal of 2020—long after she’ll graduate—even seemed hard to attain. So she’s savoring this moment and appreciative of her role in this process.
“When they announced it, I cried. I was so excited. This is something I’m really passionate about,” she says. “It made me feel like we’ve had an actual impact.”
Smith’s work has included tabling at events and working on waste management. That can mean conducting waste audits and helping students know which products go in which bin.
“It’s just explaining to students how their actions and consumption patterns on campus affect that waste stream, and also just alerting them to other issues of sustainability,” she says.
She also believes in a more patient, positive approach. “You sometimes see a militant philosophy, like ‘Oh my gosh, you’re not composting!’ But I think we’ve found ways to engage students in a less aggressive way.”
Smith’s environmental interests stem from her upbringing in Madison, Wisconsin, where the downtown area sits on an isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona. “A lot of my surroundings were natural prairie lands and lakes and farms. So, I was constantly outside and constantly just enjoying nature,” she says. “Just wanting to preserve that for future generations has been my push to study and do what I do.”
She’s earning her degree in international relations—with an environmental sustainability/global health focus—and philosophy. In taking courses like Evan Berry’s “climate ethics,” she’s even found ways to merge the two fields.
And, through her student sustainability educator position, she thrives on ideas and human connections. “It’s been a really fun intersection of my two passions,” she says. “I’m a people person. I really like engaging with people, and just talking about something that matters.”
While educating her fellow students, sophomore Faith Lewis is grateful for a community that wants to listen and help.
“If we’re tabling for an hour, we’ll probably have at least three people who really stop and talk with us. And people will often say, ‘Thank you so much for the work you’re doing. You guys are doing great. How can I sign up? Is this a club?’ So, people are really into it,” she says.
For her part, Lewis is unafraid to deliver the message in entertaining ways. When her office decided to shoot “Billy on the Street”-type YouTube videos on sustainability, Lewis volunteered to be the host and interviewer. This became a regular “Faith in MGC” video, and fellow student educators say Lewis’s humor and charisma are perfect for the medium.
“I like finding out what people are interested in, and then catering to those interests. The environment affects everybody, and it’s really our job to show people the way in which it affects them. And people are also very receptive at this school. I don’t have a hard time getting to people,” she notes.
Lewis has lived with her family in Agoura Hills, California; Melbourne, Australia; and London. She’ll return to the United Kingdom for a year abroad at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she plans to study environmental economics and environmental law.
At AU, Lewis is double majoring in economics and environmental studies, with a minor in international studies. She first contemplated an environmental focus while taking an Honors course on “climate change: science, politics, and policy,” taught by environmental science professor Stephen MacAvoy and government professor Todd Eisenstadt.
“I was hooked,” she says. “When you know the mechanisms by which something like climate change is occurring, it’s always easier to really understand the impact.”
Yet she was also inclined to study social justice, and a Melissa Scholes Young course exposed her to environmental justice. The nexus between those issues was obvious, and she’s focusing on how communities of color are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation.
After achieving carbon neutrality, she’s hoping the Office of Sustainability can continue reaching new people. “Hopefully they see the merit in the work that we’re doing, and they’re inspired to join the fight.”
A sophomore environmental science major, Matilda Kitabwalla started as a student sustainability educator last semester.
She worked on the “Faith in MGC” videos and social media promotion. She also helped organize the Waste Race, a competition between residence halls to divert trash away from landfill and into compost and recycling. As the Waste Race concluded, they held a sustainability-themed trivia night with more than 100 students at The Bridge Café.
Even thinking about AU becoming carbon neutral gives her goosebumps, she says. “It was such a feeling of pride. Not only in the AU community, but also within the Office of Sustainability,” she explains. “Being able to be a part of something like this, it’s just an incredible feeling.”
Kitabwalla’s environmental efforts echo the work of her grandmother, who led a team to put solar panels on the roof of an ecology center in Evanston, Illinois. During Matilda Kitabwalla’s formative years in Allentown, Pennsylvania, she noticed how the area’s farmland gave way to strip malls and more development.
“Just watching the lack of biodiversity, the impact on the animals, pollution, and overpopulation in this town that really wasn’t made for it—that shaped my feelings about sustainability and the environment,” she says.
And, like many a precocious child of her generation, she encouraged others to recycle. When she started the college search, AU was the only place she applied. Upon visiting the campus, she was immediately struck by the activism of her soon-to-be classmates.
“You could tell that it didn’t matter what students were into, everybody on this campus was passionate about something,” she recalls.
AU is living up to her expectations, and the carbon neutrality mission has been a high point. In only her second year, she’s still figuring out her career path.
“I kind of believe in just going with the flow,” she says, “and as long as I’m doing something with the environment, I’ll be happy.”