Sabrina Sampson, Office for Sustainability Student Employee

According to fourth-year Green Living Intern Bobby Pazhwak, every year students are increasingly more interested in sustainability here at UVA. This August, with the support of the Office for Sustainability (OFS), Bobby spearheaded the formation of the Eco-leaders program, a subset of Housing and Residence Life’s (HRL) Residential Leadership Experience. 

“Eco-leaders serve as sustainable representatives in their dorms,” Bobby said. “The purpose of the program is to help connect first-years and on-grounds residents to sustainability and be a link within associations for us to better reach out to on-grounds students.” 

At the beginning of the school year, prospective Eco-leaders filled out an application that was sent to their whole dorm. The HRL Committee for Council Training and Development read them and selected one or two representatives from each dorm. HRL’s Residential Leadership Experience includes First Year Council and Association Councils. Currently, Eco-leaders have undefined statuses within these councils. Bobby noted, “This year is a pilot to gauge interest and see how the process goes. In the future, Eco-leaders will ideally become elected positions within the councils.”  

Lela Garner from the Office for Sustainability added, “It can be challenging to connect with each student in a meaningful way, but there is already a close-knit community in first-year spaces, so this program is a good way of introducing sustainability into the conversation.” Eco-leaders are tasked with communicating information about sustainable events and initiatives to their fellow residents.

As an Eco-leader, students are expected to represent sustainability within their dorms and host one sustainability program with their hall or association every semester. All Eco-leaders work with their association to minimize waste and pursue zero waste events when possible. The Eco-leaders meet every two weeks to discuss things they can do in their dorms to be more sustainable and to learn more about sustainability resources at UVA. At the beginning of the year, the Eco-leaders got to know each other before undergoing a crash course in sustainability, the structure of HRL, and a walkthrough of the fall 2019 program.

Red/brown brick residential building
Hereford Residential College (Image Courtesy of VMDO Architects)

First-year Eco-leader Sam Hunt from the Johnson-Malone-Weedon Association said she has always been interested in the environment and tried to be sustainable as much as possible while living at home with her parents. Now living more independently at college, Sam saw this program as a great opportunity to continue her efforts. As a busy student, she especially values its flexible time commitment and open-endedness. Eco-leaders have the freedom to take initiative to address what they want to change in their dorm.

Bobby described the program as “a great first step in becoming involved with sustainability on-grounds. Students can gain a leadership role within their first year. UVA can be hard to adjust to, so the opportunity to lead is very empowering.” Bobby noted that the program also facilitates the development of many soft skills such as event-planning and different methods of communication. First-year Miles Lane from the Page-Emmet Association agrees: “If you’re interested in sustainability, it’s a good way to make connections with other first-years who share your interest.”       

Miles added, “I like that Bobby brings in sustainability representatives from the Office for Sustainability [who teach] about opportunities and resources like the new website. It’s helpful to be connected to more outlets.” On November 23, Miles and his fellow Eco-leaders hosted a casual meet-and-greet with vegan brownies before the football game to introduce themselves and make themselves approachable. For the future, they are considering hosting a clothing drive, a tree-planting initiative, or a trivia night. 

Graphic with leaf, lightbulb, and building for Dorm Energy Race
Dorm Energy Race event cover

For two weeks in October, Eco-leaders helped facilitate the Dorm Energy Race put on by the Office for Sustainability. Miles says he went door-to-door to encourage residents to reduce their consumption by turning off lights and running laundry on cold. Sam and Miles both noted that for things out of residents’ control, structural changes in the building would be helpful. 

”The lights are always on in the hallways, even at night, and there isn’t an accessible switch for us to turn them off ourselves,” Sam observed. In new dorms such as Gibbons, hallway lights have motion sensors so the lights are off if no one is using them. Miles added that many people in his dorm have also noticed the lights and were frustrated they couldn’t do anything about them during the Dorm Energy Race.

“A lot of people were receptive though not embracing, and others were less receptive and challenged the idea [of the Dorm Energy Race] because they felt like they had the right to use as much energy as they want,” said Miles. Sam also saw mixed attitudes toward the race in her dorm, but overall residents still made a group effort and the Johnson-Malone-Wheedon association ultimately won the competition.

Students, outside, gathering around a table with food and drink
Students from the Johnson-Malone-Wheedon Association celebrating their Dorm Energy Race win over donuts from the Office for Sustainability.

When it comes to reception Bobby noted, “With sustainability in general, there is some push and pull; it is hard to change lifestyles, especially in college when you’re living in a dorm. Overall, there’s lots of interest in sustainability so people are generally a whole, people realize sustainability is important and will be receptive.” Miles added that often the voices of those who reject sustainability are louder than those who embrace it, even if they aren’t more numerous.                  

The formation of the Eco-leaders program itself marks a strong student interest in sustainability and green leadership at the University. For the first time, residential associations have designated representatives to advocate for sustainability and share their enthusiasm with others who may be less informed or less receptive to change.

In the future, Bobby hopes to see the program become more self-sufficient and assume a more defined role within the First Year Council and Association Councils. “The program is pretty young and we are heading in the right direction,” says Miles. “I really like that it’s not just learning about issues but about taking action to address them.”

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