Around 8:30am on Saturday morning, I received a phone call and subsequent text from a student at West Chester University. “We’re sorry,” she said “but one of our drivers is worried about black ice so we will be unable to attend the retreat.” Despite my best efforts to convince her the weather would be fine, sunny in fact, I knew my encouragement was a lost cause. This phone call was the final note in a weeklong symphony of cancellations, apologetic e-mails, and last minute scheduling issues. When all was said and done students from Dickinson, Lycoming, West Chester, and Franklin & Marshall had cancelled just days before inaugural Student Environmental Retreat was supposed to take place. I was depressed.
Josh Hooper, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Environmental Resource Consortium (PERC), was extremely sympathetic over the phone. He had heard about the event just a week before the actual date and wished PERC could have helped to advertise and publicize the event. To my surprise, after our conversation he did in fact put up a description of the event on the main page. HIs enthusiasm and support of my idea helped lessen the blow of the ever decreasing number of participants. I promised, should the event not be canceled, that we would speak again on ways this event could occur in the future.
In total, we had 11 students and 3 faculty participate from Bucknell University, Susquehanna University, and Gettysburg University. I cannot thank these individuals enough for providing the retreat with positive energy, innovation ideas, and overall support throughout our time together. I also want to thank Erika Staaf, Bucknell alum and PennEnvironment employee, who drove 3 hours in the snow to present an informational workshop on campaigning and volunteer retainment strategies as the wrap up discussion on Saturday night. Without each of these wonderful participants, I know the success of the event would be minimal at best. At night, when the Gettysburg students and myself were sitting in front of the fireplace making s’mores, I remember feeling incredibly lucky that such a kind and intelligent group was willing to partake in my crazy event.
The conversation was organized into various environmental topics: recycling, food, economic funding, green roofs/gardens, housing options and community initiatives. Each of the schools had a program in a couple categories and we spent the majority of the time presenting our ideas and discussing the feasibility of such projects on other college campuses. Gettysburg has two theme-houses, Farmhouse and Local Lovin’, that work to include sustainability and a connection to their local community through shared living. Susquehanna had its own Sustainability Committee and sub-committee with students creating and implementing various projects on campus. Bucknell students discussed the green roof, native plant garden, and campus-wide recycling audit. And these are only a handful of the numerous projects presented. Each student and faculty member had her hand in one or two new and exciting initiatives that other schools wanted to try out.
We also found that members at Susquehanna and Gettysburg faced similar challenges to those at Bucknell. Participants commented on feelings of apathy and lack of interest from their campus as a whole, both in the student body and administration. Not all members of Facilities, Dining, and the University administration were always as open to policy changes in the name of sustainability. Katherine Straub, a professor at Susquehanna, spoke about the feeling of deprivation she believes many individuals fear when they hear about environmental projects. They don’t want to be cold (turning down thermostat), stuck in the dark (conserving energy), and smelly (taking shorter showers). For the student groups on campus, a lack of commitment and dedication was a common theme. One Gettysburg student said, “There’s this bubble of environmentally aware people on campus. How can we pop this bubble?” This is a major part of the environmental debate. The majority of environmentally aware individuals are not radical hippies or angst-ridden vegan organic farmers. Most of us just want the general population to understand their relationship to the earth and take a moment to ponder the impact each of us will leave behind. The call for increased awareness and appreciation of our world is a celebrate of ourselves not a confinement of human rights and basic necessities.
Kathy Straub wrote me a short e-mail accompanying her survey about the retreat. It read,
“And thanks to you for organizing the retreat! I enjoyed it immensely and left very rejuvenated and ready to dig back into our sustainability work at Susquehanna.”
Sometimes all you need is human confirmation that your fight is not yours alone but a larger presence fought by others, unknown to you. Environmental battles or not, I think each of us can relate to the encouragement found when a stranger confirms what you know to be true. That your fight is worthwhile after all.