The Columns

Planting Seeds for a Sustainable Future Taking part in the Sustainability Leadership Pre-Orientation Program allowed a group of Washington and Lee first-years to understand the many facets of creating and supporting sustainable communities.

— by on September 9th, 2016

“I loved spending the week looking at sustainability through different lenses and on different levels.”

Washington and Lee University’s school colors may be blue and white, but for 13 first-year students who participated in one of the school’s Leading Edge pre-orientation programs, the week of Aug. 28 was focused on all things green.

The Sustainability Leadership Pre-Orientation Program combined guest speakers and campus activities with off-campus trips and volunteer opportunities to educate students about the concepts of sustainability and leadership. But the focus was not just on saving the planet through environmentalism; it pulled in threads such as economic development and social equity, and demonstrated how a well-rounded view of sustainability should incorporate entire communities and a broad range of professions.

“Environmentalism has always been an important topic to me, but I never really knew how much sustainability encompassed,” said Ginny Johnson ’20. “I loved spending the week looking at sustainability through different lenses and on different levels.”

The sustainability program is one of three Leading Edge pre-orientation programs at W&L (Appalachian Adventure takes students hiking on the Appalachian Trail and Volunteer Venture introduces them to service-learning work in nearby cities). The sustainability program was led by Kim Hodge, director of sustainability initiatives and education at W&L, and Molly Steele, assistant director of career development for STEM programs, with help from four student leaders, Matt Lubas ’18, Sequoya Bua-Iam ’17, Anukriti Shrestha ’19, and Uma Sarwadnya ‘19.

After on-campus discussions and a tour of the campus garden, the group gathered at Boxerwood Nature Center and Woodland Garden, in Lexington, where they heard from guest speakers on topics of conservation, leadership, horticulture and more. The students also spent two hours getting their hands dirty as volunteers at Boxerwood.

A mid-week day trip to Roanoke allowed the group to tour several examples of sustainable construction. The rooftop at Center in the Square in downtown Roanoke features solar power and a “green” roof with plants, a koi pond and a rainwater recovery system. At The Lofts at West Station, students learned how a 100-year-old warehouse was renovated into apartments with environmentally friendly touches, such as bamboo cabinets and countertops made from recycled paper. They also learned that unique architectural features, such as original wood beams, can be preserved and incorporated into a modern design.

Students listen as a guest speaker explains sustainable design concepts at The Lofts at West Station in Roanoke.Students listen as a guest speaker explains sustainable design concepts at The Lofts at West Station in Roanoke.

A roundtable discussion in Roanoke featured former Roanoke County administrator Elmer Hodge (Kim Hodge’s father) and landscape architect David Hill, who talked about the intersection of development and sustainability. They may seem mutually exclusive, Elmer Hodge said, but that is not the case. As an example, they cited new neighborhood developments that threatened to spoil the Blue Ridge Parkway’s pristine viewshed in Roanoke County. Tools such as zoning, thoughtful landscape design and community involvement can create solutions that satisfy everyone.

Hodge and Hill also led the group through case studies of real communities, an exercise that set them up for the next day’s journey to Fries, a tiny town in Grayson County, in far Southwest Virginia. The Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project (SERCAP) helped to connect W&L with the town of Fries. Lubas had also learned about the town’s needs last year through the Engineers Without Borders club at W&L (now renamed Engineering Community Development), and he advocated for the pre-orientation group to offer its assistance.

Since the town’s primary employer, a cotton mill, shut down in 1989, Fries residents have been working to revive the community and the economy. Part of that revitalization effort revolves around the town’s community center, which needs physical improvements. Hodge and Steele also instructed the students to use what they had learned about sustainability to brainstorm additional uses for the center.

The students painted bleachers and hung new wall mats in the center’s gymnasium, cleaned the pool liner, fixed doors, weeded the front lawn, mixed mortar and repaired steps and prepped the kitchen for upcoming remodeling. The next day, back on campus, students applied the sustainability development goals they’d learned to the Fries case study. Some of their ideas included hosting open mic nights at the community center, having town hall meetings to generate plans, working with the nearby state park, restoring an historic duckpin bowling alley in the center’s basement, turning the kitchen into a grill, starting a museum and distributing a community outreach pamphlet.

Hodge and Steele said the program as a whole, including the trip to Fries, allowed students to view sustainability through multiple lenses, including those of a city and a rural area. It helped them to think about how an area can leverage its strengths and the talents of its residents to breathe vitality into the community.

“Who needs to be at the table? What skills do you need to have there? Fries ended up being a really good case study for that,” Hodge said.

A recurring theme throughout the week was sustainable food production and how local food sourcing can keep communities healthy by supporting farmers, promoting good land stewardship and cutting down on pollution. Delicious examples of this lesson included a dinner made by University Catering with ingredients from the W&L campus garden and dinner at Local Roots Restaurant in Roanoke, which grows much of its own ingredients and sources the rest from Southwest Virginia farmers.

“This trip is definitely unique from the others,” said Bua-Iam ’17. “It gets students involved in, appreciating, and ultimately caring for not only the W&L community and other areas of Virginia, but also caring on a global scale. Not to mention it provides incredibly delicious food!”

Garrett Clinton ’20 said he enjoyed the opportunity to try “all new food” during the pre-orientation week, as well as the chance to get a head start on building relationships with classmates before the rest of the first-years arrive on campus.

Steele said it was gratifying to see the students using the week to find “a passion and a way to implement their skills in a positive way.”

“I don’t think that any of them would be sitting here if they didn’t pour their hearts into it,” said Hodge. “That’s always been my favorite thing about working with W&L students, knowing that when they graduate they’re going to change the world.”

The following students participated in the Sustainability Leadership Pre-Orientation Program:

Sam Pumphrey ’20
George Barker ’20
Erin McFall ’20
Marshall Howerton ’20
Ginny Johnson ’20
Yavuz Durmaz ’20
Tiffany Ko ’20
Win Gustin ’20
E.C. Myers ’20
Garrett Clinton ’20
David Williams ’20
Deepthi Thumuluri ’20
Abby Yu ’20