Sustainability Literacy and Leadership: Key Competencies for College Graduates
Author: Heather Spalding, Sustainability Leadership and Outreach Coordinator
Posted: June 13, 2013

Sustainability is a hot topic on college campuses, and PSU is no exception. Numbers from PSU’s Orientations and Campus Visits Office show that 24% of our incoming 2012 class considered sustainability to be one of the reasons they chose PSU. At the same time, surveys show that 80% of US college graduates would like to make a positive impact on the environment, and 92% would like to work for an environmentally friendly company. An understanding of complex global issues and skills for creating change are two key competencies for college success. These competencies become more and more relevant as an ethic of care toward environmental, social, and economic systems is further integrated into leadership in communities, business, nonprofits, and government.

53% of Fortune 500 companies now publish corporate social responsibility or sustainability reports that track their impacts, and companies that commit to sustainability practices have on average 25% higher stock values than those who do not participate in these efforts. Organizations that integrate sustainability into their values and goals attract and retain the best talent, receive more funding, have reduced risk, experience increased quality of work and commitment by employees, and create better supply chain management. Sustainability is a driver of creativity and a key predictor of organizational resilience.

Whether planning a career in business, the medical industry, sciences, arts, or any other field, college students need to understand the importance and relevance of sustainability in their own lives as well as in their communities. They also need opportunities to practice solving environmental, social, and economic challenges. Learning about the depth and complexity of global problems can be distressing. Many students struggle with feelings of being overwhelmed, isolated, or depressed in response to global issues. It’s understandable why some feel under qualified to make a difference and are unsure where to even begin. Integrating an action component into the learning experience can empower students and help alleviate some of this distress.

Graduate student and volunteer Xi Yang harvests radishes with her task force in the PSU Community Garden.

Engagement in service- and project-based activities outside the classroom helps students better understand their own interests and strengths in order to become active change agents after graduation. Learning as part of a participatory team helps students appreciate multiple perspectives, make decisions in groups, build relationships, and gain self-confidence. When students work together toward a common goal, they are able to create exciting projects that show a measurable difference. As the saying goes, “Many hands make light work.” It’s motivating to be part of a community and see efforts come to fruition.

These cocurricular experiences complement and strengthen classroom learning by connecting students to their campus and applying studies to daily life. It’s empowering to work together with other students who care about making a difference and “being the change they wish to see.” Some of these friendships lead to collaboration and opportunities even after graduation.

At PSU, the Sustainability Leadership Center (SLC) offers a web of opportunities for students to find their niche within our thriving and diverse sustainability community. Each fall, we host unique, engaging events at Viking Days. This year, we’ll make baskets from English Ivy pulled around campus, turning an invasive plant into handmade, useful creations. We’ll also host a waste-sort of Smith Student Union with sustainability staff and faculty to display the contents of our trash in the park blocks along with messages to encourage our community to reduce consumption, recycle and compost. We’ll bike around Portland visiting gardens, sustainable businesses, and other eco-friendly attractions. Students can also participate in a workshop on “permaculture.” In this session, we’ll learn how to apply a design philosophy that utilizes the principles of natural systems.

The Food Systems Task Force collected 500 cans of food for the ASPSU food pantry during winter 2013. 

Students can participate in a variety of interesting events on campus throughout the year. In October, we host a “Cross-Pollinator” that brings together the sustainability community on campus to network and discuss their ideas for initiatives. This event is a great way to meet new people and join a group. November is Social Sustainability Month jointly hosted by the SLC and the Women’s Resource Center. This series of workshops is a time for us to explore the connections between environmental challenges and topics such as diversity, equity, and gender.

During winter term, PSU’s residence halls participate in Campus Conservation Nationals to reduce their ecological impact in terms of water, food, and energy. In April, we celebrate Earth Days to celebrate our planet and also host Farmworker Awareness Week, which focuses on the living conditions of the people who put food on our tables. And in May, students participate in Portland’s Village Building Convergence to create a legacy on campus. This annual 10-day event has offered students the chance to practice natural building, design community art projects, build living fences, construct a greenhouse made of plastic bottles, plant orchards, and much more.

Graduate students (from left to right: Virginia Luka, Nichole Martin, Birdie Krebs, and Nicole Boeh-Barrett) lead the audience in a song at the Oregon Higher Education Sustainability Conference in January 2013.

These and other innovative projects are hosted and planned by students with support from mentors in the SLC. Our leadership framework provides enough stability to help initiatives be successful and enough flexibility to utilize the creativity and new ideas students bring to PSU. All students have an important role to play in strengthening the resilience of our communities, building balanced economies, and living abundantly within the context of our Earth’s limits. The university experience can help cultivate their talents and build confidence so that students are effective change agents, community members, and leaders throughout their lives.

Ways to Get Involved:

  • EcoReps: Living on campus? Join us to strengthen your leadership skills and promote sustainable living in our residence halls. EcoReps participate in and offer trainings, host a conservation challenge, and design a personal project in the spring. Email
  • Sustainability Volunteer Program (SVP): Join us to create positive change around campus. Choose from one of five task forces: Gardens, Food Systems, Cultural Sustainability, Waste Reduction, and Communications. Email
  • Student Sustainability Leadership Council (SSLC): Join us to strengthen and connect student initiatives across campus, envision the future of student projects, and influence university policies. The SSLC also hosts a quarterly flea market and swap meet in the Park Blocks. Contact
  • Sign up for our student newsletter to stay up-to-date on upcoming events, opportunities (jobs, scholarships, volunteer positions, and internships), and sustainability news. Email with the subject heading “subscribe.”
  • Chinook Book app: Download PSU’s free mobile app to receive 50 free coupons to local, sustainable businesses. From free pizza to discounts on yoga classes, groceries, and discounts on Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, there is something for everyone. Included in the app are campus resources and sustainable living ideas. Visit to get started.