We had the opportunity to hear from Jesse Pyles, the Service-Learning & Sustainability Coordinator at Green Mountain College. Green Mountain College has a strong environmental mission reflected in the 37-credit Environmental Liberal Arts General Education Program that all students complete. Experiential education and service learning are also emphasized, providing students opportunities for hands-on learning. Before coming to Green Mountain, Jesse earned a BA in Environmental studies at Pace University and a Masters of Science in Environmental Education at Lesley University. He worked previously as the Associate Director of Environmental Education at Oglebay Institute’s Schrader Center in Wheeling, WV. Illustrating its environmental mission, Green Mountain College is playing an important role in the pilot phase of AASHE’s Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS). Leadership is also coming from President Brennan, who is a signatory to the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) as well as a member of the ACUPCC Leadership Circle. In 2007, Green Mountain College received AASHE’s Campus Sustainability Leadership Award.
What campus sustainability initiatives are you working on at the moment?
Summers quiet down a bit on our small campus, so I get a chance to focus on bigger projects like our greenhouse gas inventory and our STARS pilot. I’m also working with a couple of students on greening our upcoming orientation, and managing our campus recycling program.
How did you get started in campus sustainability?
My primary interest is in meaningful education, and I’ve found that engaging with complex sustainability issues offers a great context for making education meaningful. My own degree programs introduced me to diverse facets of sustainability, and I was drawn to Green Mountain College, in part, because every student approaches his or her studies through an environmental lens.
What campus sustainability success are you most proud of?
Receiving AASHE’s Campus Sustainability Leadership Award for small, four-year colleges was a great achievement for Green Mountain College last year. And I’m pretty impressed by our students; they’re pretty good motivators for campus sustainability action. Students in a Service-Learning course worked with College administrators to create the Student Campus Greening Fund here in 2004. Since then, students have allocated more than $75,000 of their activities fee for student-proposed greening projects voted on by the student body. We’ve replaced light bulbs, sponsored local food events, funded a biomass feasibility study, all manner of other good projects. There’s plenty of room for improvement with the Greening Fund, but I’m really proud of the way it’s shaping up. Lastly, though I’ve had little to do with it, I’m really impressed by our campus farm and our Farm & Food Project in general. It’s an incredible opportunity for our students and a pretty unique characteristic of our school.
What advice would you give to others in your position who are just getting started?
Celebrate successes, even the small ones.
How do you spend your free time?
When we’re not gardening, my wife and I have been playing a lot of Yahtzee lately. I like playing music with friends, and I’m trying to read more fiction these days.
In what area(s) do you see the biggest room for growth in the campus sustainability field?
Classroom involvement. I think the more we’re able to incorporate sustainability themes and initiatives into the academic objectives of our institutions the more we’ll get accomplished. And I agree with Susan Kidd that collaboration among institutions could really benefit the field/movement as a whole.
How are you incorporating the social dimensions of sustainability into your work?
I’m jointly the Service-Learning and Sustainability Coordinator, so I get involved with a good number of social and environmental efforts in our rural community. Our Service-Learning program frequently partners our faculty and students with area schools and social service agencies. One recent partnership saw a Social Psychology class practice influence techniques in a mailing solicitation that raised more than $1,500 for the Poultney Students working in greenhouse Emergency Food Shelf. The Food Shelf saw fit to use some of the donations to purchase a summer share from our campus farm’s CSA program, and they’re distributing the produce to their clientele in our community. It’s been a tremendous example of partnering well to serve community needs.
How are you tracking your progress toward sustainability?
Our Campus Sustainability Council is currently using the Presidents Climate Commitment as a framework for tracking our progress. We’re finishing up our greenhouse gas inventory which will inform our climate action plan and provide a baseline for future assessments.
Is there a particular insight (learning experience or “ah-ha” moment) you have had working on campus sustainability?
Initially, I had a hard time relating to colleagues or at conferences because Green Mountain College is so small – about 750 students last year – and so uniquely focused through our Environmental Liberal Arts curriculum. At GOC VII last fall, I attended a presentation by folks from MIT who were talking about energy conservation programs focused on fume hoods in labs – not exactly a big slice of our energy pie at GMC. Despite the glaringly obvious differences between Green Mountain College and MIT, this was the most applicable sustainability session I’ve attended to date. All because the presenters focused enthusiastically on the educational gains for students involved in sustainability programs. The metric was no longer kWh or CO2e, but student engagement, individual learning. Though I rely on these other measures to assess our progress toward sustainability, I’m reminded to always consider student learning opportunities. Thanks to Beth Conlin, Elsa Olivetti, and Steve Lanou of MIT for a great lesson.
In what ways are students involved in your work?
In addition to the ways mentioned previously I feel very fortunate to have facilitated a Campus Sustainability course as an Eco-Reps program last year. Students responded really well to the campaigns their peers developed, and I think it contributed well to the sustainability conversation on campus. We will again be using student Eco-Reps as part of our orientation program this August.
How are you approaching the issues around carbon offsets and or renewable energy credits (RECs)?
We’re still determining what role carbon offsets will play in our climate action plan. Of course our enrollment in Central Vermont Public Service’s Cow Power program has been a great success for us, and has mitigated a portion of our emissions from electricity use.
President Brennan is a Signatory to the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. What do you feel will be the most difficult aspect of moving toward climate neutrality at Green Mountain College?
Like many others, we have a pretty old infrastructure to contend with. As we finish our greenhouse gas inventory we’ll be better able to prioritize projects that will move us toward climate neutrality. President Brennan’s initiative as a Leadership Circle signatory to the ACUPCC has had a great organizing effect to our efforts on campus. We look forward to working with our new president, Dr. Paul Fonteyn, to fulfill the goals of the Commitment.