Article by Melissa Ott
If you ever lived in a college dorm, was sustainability a topic your residential advisor often brought up? Most likely not, unless you lived in a sustainability themed house or had a particularly environmentally minded RA. Fortunately, this is changing here at UCSC, and has been in the process of changing for some time. Already, there are signs in most dorm bathrooms reminding residents to turn off the sink when brushing their teeth or to take shorter showers. Stickers are great, but what about the conversations that need to go along with them? RAs present the ideal candidate for starting those conversations in the dorm communities to create lasting change in students' consciousness and behavior regarding sustainable issues.
We spoke with Stevenson RA Sarah Cohen earlier this quarter about the RA class that she’s teaching with two other RAs; one of the topics of the course is sustainability, and we were interested in learning more about the role sustainability is playing in RA training and dorm life. All students who will be RAs in Stevenson College next year are in this class, which discusses other topics such as health and wellness, diversity and social justice, leadership, and which works to create a bond among this team of leaders in the Stevenson community.
Sustainability is part of the curriculum for the course for a couple of reasons. One of the Stevenson dorm buildings, Casa Segunda (discussed in May’s profile, as well), is a sustainability themed dorm, so it makes sense to discuss what sustainability means among those who will be living in this house and interacting with those living in this house. The House 2 lounge is filled with magazines and other resources related to living a more sustainable lifestyle, and the RAs in this house this year are active members of Path to a Greener Stevenson (PTAGS), an environmental group that meets in this house’s lounge on Thursdays from 8-9 PM. While students with a particular inclination toward sustainability can choose to live in this house, it’s important that students in all of the dorms be exposed to the issues, practices, and reasons surrounding sustainability. Not to mention it is great to have these conversations going on in classes in which leaders are learning how to lead by example and talk with residents about important life topics.
“Students form habits early in college,” Cohen remarked. She said that it’s important to talk about sustainable habits with the RAs who will be there with incoming freshman at the beginning of their college career and who can help influence good decision-making. A student’s first year can be defining in what kinds of habits follow them throughout their lives. For many, it’s the first time they’re independent from their families and making decisions without their parents checking on them.
If you haven't seen The Story of Stuff, take 20 minutes and watch it right now (or at least send yourself a reminder to watch it after work or class). This short film was the homework assignment due the day that the RA class talked about sustainable topics. It’s a “a 20-minute animation” that focuses on “the consumerist society" and “the way we make, use and throw away Stuff” (1). Cohen said the discussion went well that day in class when these issues were brought up and that it was exciting to talk about these issues with RAs who will be able to continue these conversations with their residents next year. During the class, they spent some time "thinking about where all of the stuff in a freshman dorm would come from and how to help students think about those things during move in and move out," she described.
These conversations generated tangible ways for RAs to encourage sustainable behavior in their houses next year. Some examples were reminding residents to turn off lights, creating a box in the lounge to hold old fliers to be used as scratch paper, and posting reminders in the bathrooms about reducing water use.
The class also did an activity during which students became more aware of their own environmental impact and resource use in their everyday routines. "You wake up and use your alarm, which uses electricity," Cohen gave as an example. "You take a shower, which uses water and energy to warm the water... In the dining hall, where does that food come from? Your daily routine impacts the world around you."
What are some ways that students in the dorms can be more conscious of their impact and take steps to reduce it? Post your ideas in the comments!
Sarah Cohen previously worked with the Sustainability Office’s Green Office Certification program, and she is currently working on The Sustainability Awareness Promotional Video about campus sustainability to share with incoming freshman and the UCSC campus. She is a third year studying Global Information and Social Enterprise Studies (GISES), an Intensive BA Degree in Sociology.
1. The Story of Stuff website.