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Bridging sustainability and Student Affairs

Coauthored by Angela Hamilton and Heather Spalding

In June, we ventured to Tampa, Florida for the NASPA Student Affairs Professionals Assessment and Persistence Conference. More than we ever could have imagined, it opened our eyes to the multitude of opportunities available to bridge sustainability and Student Affairs. Based on what we discovered at the conference, we identified three main steps to begin more fully embedding sustainability into the culture of Portland State.

1. We need to develop a comprehensive strategy for integrating sustainability into Student Affairs. Our colleagues in Student Affairs are consistently enhancing opportunities for students to be engaged on campus and in the community as leaders of social change. These cocurricular activities augment the classroom experience by making learning applicable and relevant to real life. They also help students move past the traditional focus of “knowing” to “being and “doing.” Because leaders in Student Affairs are often passionate about social justice issues, social sustainability can serve as a strong intersection between our two worlds. At PSU, we are fortunate to already have a lot of momentum bridging these areas—Heather’s position creates a partnership between the director of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions and the dean of Student Life. Many needs and opportunities are already emerging for the 2012-2013 school year as Student Affairs staff across campus inquire about how to integrate sustainability into their programs.


Angela Hamilton (left) and Heather Spalding (right) gave a presentation on sustainability program assessment in Tampa, Florida.

2. We need to create a culture of assessment to measure sustainability learning goals and outcomes. Learning doesn’t stop when students leave class. The entire college experience can provide an enriching, applicable education that prepares graduates to analyze and engage in understanding the interdependence of social, environmental, and economic issues. Assessment of these learning experiences is integral to our understanding of student success. Student Affairs offers an abundance of resources to which we can look regarding learning outcomes, rubrics, and other assessment tools for student leadership. Through continued emphasis on assessing the Sustainability Leadership Center and Solutions Generator programs, we hope to contribute to this culture of assessment.

3. We need to expand the campus-wide learning outcomes for sustainability to include leadership if we are to truly develop change-agent leaders. Our learning outcomes focus on personal lifestyle choices and understanding issues, but not on the ability to create or design sustainable solutions. Sustainability can be deeply integrated into the individual’s concept of self and lead to dynamic opportunities for growth, reflection, and innovative problem solving. Sustainability initiatives can be used in both coursework and cocurricular learning opportunities to foster leadership. For instance, students in a summer PSU Ecodistrict capstone course are designing projects that utilize the campus as a living lab for applied learning. The Solutions Generator program, which offers student funding for sustainability projects, complements this by providing the opportunity for students to continue developing their projects outside the classroom. With increased collaboration between sustainability departments, Student Affairs, and Academic Affairs, PSU graduates will benefit from a more cohesive community and institutional identity, and be stronger proponents of a more sustainable world.

Angela Hamilton is the Solutions Generator program coordinator at the Portland State Institute for Sustainable Solutions and teaches a seminar on social sustainability. Heather Spalding oversees the PSU Sustainability Leadership Center as the sustainability leadership and outreach coordinator.