Delaney Buskard, Office for Sustainability Student Employee

As we approach the 50th celebration of Earth Day (April 22), we are also adjusting to a new normal in the face of a worldwide pandemic. Just in the last month or so, millions of workers have been sent home to telework. Virtual work and stay-at-home orders have opened up conversations about advancing technology, the stability of our economy, mental health, and the environment. COVID-19 will continue to impact our “new normal” even after the widespread fear has calmed and a more permanent solution has been developed. With this in mind, we have all needed to reevaluate how we can support the Earth from home, while maintaining social distancing and taking care of ourselves.

From my own personal experience, I am very lucky to have a strong support base, from which I am able to still advocate for the environment. In order to adapt to online schooling, teleworking my part-time jobs, handling familial and financial obligations, and strains on my own mental health, I, like most of us, have had to get creative. Handling the stresses of uncertainty while trying to maintain a sense of normalcy has been a task that is universally difficult to manage. However, my passion for the environment has not waivered and has provided a stable outlet for me to work towards. The UVA Office for Sustainability (OFS) has been adapting to COVID-19: all of our events are virtual and the use of social media has been as salient as ever. Check out our Earth Day Every Day campaign that has been running since the start of the month and will continue until the end of the April. During this past week, I was able to hear from recent “sustainalumni” who spoke about life after UVA, the best practices for advancing your career, and how COVID-19 has affected their efforts in the fight against climate change. 

Camille Freeman, a 2019 UVA graduate from the Environmental Thought and Practice major, now works at Rare, a non-profit, environmental organization. As Outreach team leader at OFS, she was well prepared for her position at Rare’s Center for Behavior & the Environment (BE.Center). Camille highlighted her interpersonal skills and interdisciplinary major as sources of development in her current position. As a coordinator, she helps her team achieve its goals by project managing, drafting outreach materials, and conducting research, amongst other responsibilities. Rare is based in Arlington, Virginia and has offices around the world; thus it was already well accustomed to the Zoom platform when COVID-19 sent its non-essential workers home. Though in-person, on-the-grounds projects have been halted for the time being, the BE.Center has continued conducting most of its research and programming remotely. In January, the BE.Center launched an interactive web platform that has been helpful in this time of transition. In order to recognize the hardships that some in our community are facing, Rare has continued to work in pursuit of its mission. 

Camilled reflected on how Rare has adapted to COVID-19, saying: “One of the five core values that defines our organization is the “Mindset of Solutionology,” and this principle is consistent with our current outreach efforts. Although these are unprecedented times, instead of focusing on despair and helplessness, we try to cover the “bright spots” - what’s working out there, why it’s working, and what gives us hope.” 

Since Rare focuses on human behavior, Camille and her colleagues have been able to learn from the rapid societal changes that have occured, while also effectively engaging followers and making progress towards a sustainable future.

Female wearing brown hat, overlooking a landscape
Camille Freeman, Coordinator at Rare
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Sydney Applegate, Energy and Sustainability Junior Engineer at ICF

Sydney Applegate, also a 2019 UVA graduate, worked on the Energy & Water team at OFS while also pursuing a degree in Civil & Environmental Engineering. She is currently an Energy and Sustainability Junior Engineer at ICF, in Fairfax, Virginia. There, she works on the U. S. Department of Energy Better Buildings Challenge (UVA is getting there) and reviews EPA Energy Star Commercial Building applications for certification. Both are voluntary federal energy efficiency programs that are using market-based incentives to reduce the energy use across the built environment. Currently working from home due to COVID-19 as the data lead for the public sector (K-12 schools, cities, states, and local governments), she has adjusted her messaging to be more patient regarding deadlines for submission. Some of the organizations that she works with have not been able to allocate the usual amount of time to focus on their energy efficiency data. Sydney reported that “K-12 schools typically report great energy savings compared to other sectors, but this year almost half of the K-12 partners did not end up submitting data.” Similarly to many of us, Sydney has had to adapt quickly, yet patiently, to these new changes. It will be interesting to see what the data tell us about energy usage and efficiency, in the context of COVID-19.

Sam Hunt, also a 2019 UVA graduate and OFS team leader for the Recycling team, shared her experience with working with the Earth Day Network, the global coordinator of Earth Day. Sam also drew upon her leadership and organizations skills, and their past applications in the sustainability field to her current work. She works on the university outreach side of the campaign to ensure that Earth Day efforts are alive and well on every campus. Because much of campus outreach involves in-person events, such as rallies and strikes, it has been very stressful taking six months of planning in-person events to accommodate virtual engagement. Though it has been disappointing recently, it has also been a valuable learning experience that has fostered creativity on all fronts. The 50th anniversary of Earth Day will be virtual for the first time, and that is in a large part due to the efforts of the Earth Day Network’s efforts. They have also been working on strengthening the messaging about how the pandemic has parallels to the global climate crisis. This is because in observing the world’s response to a crisis, they are hoping to promote further climate action in a similar manner of urgency. As events of all kinds have been canceled or moved to a virtual setting, I admire the creativity and passion that Sam and her colleagues at the Earth Day Network are showing in the face of this hectic time. 

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Sam Hunt, MobilizeU Campaign Manager at Earth Day Network

For those of you looking to advance your career in sustainability, all of the alumni had similar recommendations:

  1. Utilize the UVA Career Center to its fullest potential.
  2. Be okay with rejection, and turn it into determination.
  3. Knowing yourself and what you want in life is just as important as absorbing information from the outside world.
  4. Reach out to alumni - you’re not bothering them, they want to help! 
  5. Send your resume directly to employers so that they actually read it (they may even provide some feedback). 

And for those of you struggling to adjust to our new normal, here are some additional tips for staying productive, happy, and healthy:

  1. Designate a specific space just for work.
  2. Maintain a reasonable schedule, with hours for work and hours for no work at all. 
  3. Work in short bursts, broken up by short breaks.
  4. Communicate! Maintaining wellbeing via social interaction is key in this changing time. 
  5. Take time for some self-exploration: pick up a new hobby or go outside for some fresh air.

During such a chaotic time of uncertainty, it can be very difficult to return to a sense of normalcy. These stories were not meant to increase pressure on any already existing hardships. Instead, they were aimed to increase motivation and positivity, while updating the community on what some of our “sustainalumni” are doing in the pursuit of a greener world. I hope that everyone is staying safe and healthy, and that we emerge from this time of hardship, stronger and more resilient than before.