I was lucky enough to attend and present at the annual AASHE Conference and Expo held Oct 9-12 this year in Baltimore, Maryland. I was joined by three other Oberlin students involved in sustainability. Bridget, Sustainability Coordinator in OES, told us that AASHE is the biggest and best sustainability-in-higher-education conference. We didn’t know exactly what to expect from the experience, but we hoped to hear about other institution’s challenges in campus sustainability from a mainly student perspective. The theme of the conference was “Beyond the Campus”, which means that the conference focused on “the dissemination and implementation of [sustainability] solutions in surrounding communities and the world.” We went into the conference aware of Oberlin’s progressive reputation, and comprehensive dedication to developing a community culture that embodies sustainability at every level, especially as we aim to achieve carbon neutrality.
The first day of the conference was the Student Summit, a day set aside for student leaders to come together and exchange sustainability ideas, but mainly revealed to us that Oberlin excels even more than we realized. Compared to other small liberal arts colleges and public institutions present at this year’s AASHE conference, Oberlin’s academic community has gone to great lengths to understand what motivates all types of staff and students to reduce their energy usage. Beyond that, rather than just focusing on energy efficiency and measurable outcomes implementing technology, we have a more integrated, cultural approach. I was struck at how much more intersectional our approach is than at many other institutions. Sustainability and social justice are integrated into our campus fabric and into our local community. We talk about pronouns, we talk about privilege, we talk about accessibility, and we talk about renewable energy. While I feel like there is room for improvement in terms of infrastructure or technology, such as unleashing more of the potential of the Environmental Dashboard, I feel more confident in Oberlin’s conscious effort to address sustainability in a more inclusive and collaborative way. Sustainability at Oberlin acknowledges and includes many diverse stakeholders as opposed to just some economists or engineers making complex carbon calculations on behalf of the students.
The rest of the conference featured a plethora of more organized and professional presentations. I attended a number of talks from a variety of experience levels working in on-campus sustainability efforts. (The rest of the interns and I tried to divide and conquer because so many different types of initiatives and topics were being presented on – it was a little overwhelming!) I went to a presentation on a behavior-change campaign, similar to one I am developing in Kahn Hall, on tracking student shower usage in real-time. In between talks, I checked out the Expo Hall downstairs where a number of different vendors were exhibiting technologies, products, and programs related to sustainability. I also attended a panel on internal carbon pricing, a much more advanced discussion between representatives from Swarthmore, Vassar, and Yale to display the challenges higher-ed campuses may face when it comes to developing economic policy instruments aimed to reduce GHG’s. Later in the afternoon, I presented a poster with my fellow OES Intern, Gabe, about the power of involving students in the process of decision-making when it comes to these issues. Taking a look at the other posters being presented made me really appreciate that my internship in OES gives me the opportunity to work directly with administrators and facilities operators who are directly involved in infrastructural and mechanical improvements here, in addition to other students and professors.
As OES Interns, we have more exposure to the interconnectedness of our carbon neutrality efforts, so our responsibilities are inherently more demanding (and exciting) than being part of a sustainability-related student group. All in all, my experience learning about other student projects at AASHE revealed more of the intricacies of Oberlin’s own approach to sustainability as it fits into our community culture.