Preparing Students for Green Jobs? Start With Campus Projects

Xarissa Holdaway, one of this summer’s Buildings & Grounds guest bloggers, is campus e-news coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation’s campus-ecology project. You can read her previous posts here.

More and more colleges have started the long and complicated process of working toward carbon neutrality, but many of them are ignoring an opportunity that exists right under their noses. This is the opportunity to educate students for jobs in sustainability by letting them learn from the college’s infrastructure.

For example, why don’t students learn about the solar- or wind-generating capacity on their campuses? I’m not saying freshmen need to be up on the rooftops installing solar panels or turbines, but why not invite them to help with the proposals and paperwork that go along with the process, as Georgia Tech has done? This is valuable training, and may also take some of the burden of switching to new fuel sources off already overstretched facilities-staff members.

The mission of colleges and universities is to prepare students for the world they’re entering, and to do so, they need to offer students more practical experience. But students interested in sustainability are often limited to joining a recycling club or making posters about the merits of biking. Good efforts, to be sure, but the challenges of sustainability span the gamut. Students interested in environmental law, green building, water conservation, xeriscaping, habitat protection, fair trade, education, sustainable agriculture, urban planning, business, and a host of others could all find ways to be involved in the process of making a college sustainable.

Warren Wilson student at work Noah Wilson, a Warren Wilson College student, at work on a local resident’s house. (Photo by Phillip Ray Gibson)

Curricula already exist to offer students practical instruction. An outreach program at Warren Wilson College brings students into the homes of local, low-income homeowners to insulate, window-wrap, and block air leakages, saving residents as much as a quarter of their income. Not only does this level the cost of energy efficiency for the homeowners, it reduces the greenhouse-gas emissions of the house.

Such projects don’t contribute to lowering the footprint of Warren Wilson’s campus—which is the goal of the President’s Climate Commitment and the motivation for a lot of sustainability projects—but they get students’ hands dirty and make a real difference in the community. And because students are required by the college to perform community service, they are held accountable for the quality of their work. It’s possible they are learning more about the nuts and bolts of green building than is taught in some architecture schools.

Whether this work is internalized or not depends greatly on the student herself, of course. But if her college experience includes actual grant-writing for a solar installation, growing food for the cafeteria, or coordinating a campus-wide low-emissions transportation system, how can she help but be better prepared for a career in the emerging “green jobs” market? This kind of exposure to the realities of the world takes education out of the abstract and offers students the ability to take responsibility for the particular challenges they are inheriting.

Teaching the theories of a sustainable, ecologically-sensitive, fair society is good. Giving students a chance to practice, using the college and its environs as an instrument, is far better. Why separate facilities and coursework? —Xarissa Holdaway

Return to Top