As an undergrad, I was that student with a million ideas. I had all sorts of ideas on how to make the campus a better place. Fortunately, there were a host of faculty and staff members who took my eager self and channeled my chaotic energy toward effective action (often only after responding—wait, slow down, take a deep breath, and say that all again. You want to do what?). I chose to pursue a job like my current role because I wanted to return that gift and be that staff member who can help students bring their ideas to life.
Reflecting on my past two and a half years at Williams, it has been a journey of learning what students need to develop into the change-makers that we need in this world. As with most careers, sustainability careers require a set of both soft and hard skills that we seek to foster in our students, particularly through our internship program. I’d like to share a bit of what I believe will help empower and equip this next generation of student leaders.
Colleges, particularly within the liberal arts, tend to have a robust curriculum of deconstruction. Whether it’s picking apart an argument to find its flaws, examining why past policy decisions have failed, or simply being exposed to the incredible degrees of injustice that occur in our world, we have trained students to be excellent critics. While this is an important skill, I believe it’s only half – if that – of the skill set we need to equip students to make a difference in the world. As Theodore Roosevelt (old-white-problematic-man asterisk aside), said,
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
One of the key goals I have for interns in our program is to not only be able to recognize issues with campus sustainability but to be able to strategize how to solve them. This involves critical hard and soft skills of project management, adaptability, stakeholder engagement, communication, and the ability to critique your own plans and ideas to make them robust. After recognizing that these skills are learned, and thus need to be taught, I developed a workshop on navigating institutions. This workshop regularly evolves and incorporates new voices, but is designed to help students get to the root cause of issues and work collaboratively, instead of combatively, with campus stakeholders to create the change they’d like to see. (Not that there’s not a role for protest—we cover that too! We just don’t hire students to protest the college.) We want students to understand how to go from identifying an issue to creating a better—although likely still imperfect—solution.
Once students are trained, they are assigned to a ZC staff member for mentorship in their project. Our weekly meetings help make the trainings more tangible. Mike has taught me a great management technique in the way he manages my own work. He’s regularly asking what’s your plan for x? What will you do if x happens? These questions leave room for the person working on the project to come up with their own creative solutions while encouraging the introspection necessary to start building something better. This also helps redirect your “critic energy” from others to developing agency over your plans and actions.
In addition to project management skills that are necessary for success, we’re also constantly thinking about how we develop thoughtful, empathetic, and intentional students who are emotionally mature and grounded for the work ahead. I was recently introduced to the Inner Development Goals, which speak to the internal characteristics that sustainability practitioners need to develop to be effective in their work. Climate change is not a technical challenge—we have the technology to solve it—but rather is a challenge of human behavior and cooperation. The Inner Development Goals cover our relationship to ourselves and others, cognitive and social skills, and change-making abilities. Mike and I worked through the list, examining where our internship program helped students develop these skills, either through explicitly training students in them, modeling the behaviors, or being an integrated part of our work. It was incredibly helpful to put words to the attributes that we’ve been working to develop in our students, and exciting to see that others are recognizing the need for these soft skills as well.
Higher education sustainability offices have the unique opportunity to get the work of sustainability done while simultaneously equipping the next generation that will carry the baton after us. In a world full of theory and critique, it’s invigorating to lean into praxis and teach students to do the same.
Want to hone your own change-making skills? These are a handful of the key resources that I highly recommend:
- Data Innovation Project’s Theory of Change
- Emergent Strategy by adrianne marie brown
- Inner Development Goals – shout-out to Angie Gregory, Mt. Holyoke’s Sustainability Program Manager for introducing us to these!
- Sustainability Leadership for the 21st Century – open-enrollment course at Harvard’s Extension School
Sustainability Coordinator, Zilkha Center