Responsibility for the environment is a task that will soon be left to college students, and the movement to become more environmentally conscious and active is hard to ignore. As a university with a large agricultural program, it is no surprise there are groups and programs on campus to support this movement.
Cal Poly students, faculty and staff polled say the university does a good job of addressing the issue of the environment, but campus leaders say some students have a much more direct interest in the issue than others.
“I tell my classes, ‘The world is run by the people who show up,’” environmental management and protection professor Rich Thompson said. “One person really can make a difference if they want to.”
Cal Poly’s agricultural and environmental programs encompass 20.5 percent of the current student population, according to the Fall 2010 PolyView Report — more than 3,700 students.
The Empower Poly Coalition (EPC) is a group of about 20 clubs on campus that promotes sustainability and works with campus operations and government to improve the university’s environmental impact. EPC president and environmental management and protection senior Sam Gross said students at Cal Poly should make an effort to learn more about the things they do that have an impact on the environment.
“It’s the personal choices and little things that make a difference,” Gross said. “The general public on campus doesn’t know as much as the people who are really interested.”
Gross said he thinks students should be aware of the effect they have on the environment, and students would benefit from an environmental class requirement.
As a professor, Thompson said while he sees small groups of students who are passionate about environmental issues, but the campus as a whole is generally complacent.
He said the biggest environmental problems develop in areas of poverty, and in a community like Cal Poly where the majority of students are from relatively wealthy families, there is not as much involvement or exposure to these issues.
“Inside the Cal Poly campus, it’s like a cocoon for students — they have to get outside to see what the real world is really like,” Thompson said.
Until students are personally confronted with environmental issues, Thompson said they aren’t as interested to involve themselves.
“As faculty we do as much as we can to get people interested, and the administration puts a voice to our efforts,” Thompson said. “If there was some sort of requirement for students in every major to attend a governmental or political meeting, they could see what the real issues are.”
The Sierra Student Coalition is an organization that works to show students a view of the environment and the politics surrounding the issue outside the classroom. President and environmental management and protection junior Victoria Carranza said most people on campus are used to their own routine, and if they are not personally involved in a cause like the environment, they won’t pay attention.
“The idea of environmental issues like sustainability are very centralized in only a few majors, but they really can be integrated into every subject,” Carranza said. “Cal Poly should be a leader in this area, not a follower.”
Carranza also said the idea of being an “environmentalist” has a stigma that discourages most people from getting involved. She said Cal Poly students would benefit from some required research into environmental issues.
“You can’t expect people to seek out an issue they aren’t interested in,” Carranza said. “But you don’t have to make it your life — it’s just about thinking differently. There’s a difference between being an ‘environmentalist’ and wanting a better future.”
Center for Sustainability director Hunter Francis said more people on campus are recognizing the importance of environmental issues, and those issues aren’t going away anytime soon.
“I think it’s something students are interested in,” Francis said. “There’s a lot going on as far as facilities, like retrofitting the lighting on campus and programs in the dorms to encourage saving energy.”
The lighting retrofitting project last year encompassed 10 campus buildings and reduced the energy used by 20 percent, according to a sustainability progress report released by Facilities in 2010. Poly Canyon Village is also the California State University system’s largest Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified project. Between 2008 and 2010 the university invested $1 million in total for energy efficient projects, which saved the university more than $190,000 in annual utility costs.
Francis said interest in environmental issues like sustainability on the Cal Poly campus comes in waves, and he is seeing more interest this year.
“There are great student groups like the Real Food Coalition and the Empower Poly Coalition, but I’ve talked to students who wonder if being involved will really make a difference,” Francis said. “People start initiatives and then get burned out and there will be a lull for a while, and then new people step in. I think this year is going to be a year of growth.”
Francis said although there are successful practices in place on campus, the staff who run operations on campus have to remain realistic about what they can do to help the environment, especially with budget cuts.
“We have programs like the organic farm that teach people about successful sustainable practices, but there are a lot of challenges and a lot more that can be done,” he said.
Dean of Students Jean DeCosta said as an administrator she sees a general increase in student awareness about the environment.
“Students are starting to pursue majors in areas that are focused on the environment — I think Cal Poly will become a leader in this field,” DeCosta said.
Though Francis said he doesn’t see the Cal Poly student body as the most idealistic crowd, he said this challenge is an opportunity for turning ideals into actions. He said an awareness of issues like sustainability is something employers are starting to look for, and that will start to drive student interest.
“I can see the signs — this is an added incentive for everybody,” Francis said. “This issue isn’t a fringe thing anymore, and Cal Poly is well-poised to make a difference in this area in the long run.”