Where Meaning Lies: Student Attitudes and Behaviors related to Sustainability in College
This paper was a recipient of AASHE's Award for Student Research on Campus Sustainability.
Author(s): Annie W Bezbatchenko
Program Name: Doctor of Philosophy in Higher and Postsecondary Education
Institution: New York University
Publication Date: March, 2011
Paper Type: Doctoral Dissertation
While sustainability is a national priority, an intriguing gap seems to exist between peoples’ perceptions of sustainability as an issue and their levels of actual engagement. This study aimed to capture deep qualitative insights into the interworkings of student attitudes and behaviors related to sustainability in college in order to discover meaning behind the complex attitude-behavior relationship and also to help institutional leaders and policymakers understand how to cultivate settings that most effectively support pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors. Interviews with twelve students, two times each, and four contextual interviews with administrators and faculty were conducted for this instrumental case study. Four major findings emerged from the collected data and subsequent analysis: students tend to employ a human-centric lens in the way that they view sustainability and decide whether or not to behave in pro-environmental ways; in not wanting to feel guilty or judged, students often back away from committing themselves to sustainability; close peer groups and clear signage in the college setting can be used as effective nudge-based strategies to help remove students’ identified barriers to pro-environmental behavior such as time and inconvenience; and a lack of attention to knowledge-based change exists in the higher education setting. Implications for policy and practice include: link sustainability to meaningful, human-centric concepts such as social justice as a starting place in working toward increased eco-centrism; develop a more tolerant and asset-oriented culture in the dialogue surrounding sustainability by limiting judgment-based language such as the word “should”; look to nudge-based influences such as close interpersonal peer groups and effective signage to help influence college students’ pro-environmental behaviors; and promote the integration of sustainability into academics as a means to work toward increased knowledge-based change.
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