Spartan Sustainability Stories

Spartan Sustainability Stories

In 2009-10, these five Spartans took the SJSU Ecological Footprint Challenge and learned to make small changes that can add up to a big difference.

All participants took an online survey in the fall semester and were scored with an "Earth" metric, representing a rough calculation of how many planets would be required if all current humans were to consume at those same levels. Participants then completed a second survey in the spring to evaluate the progress they had made toward more sustainable lifestyles.

Michael FallonMichael Fallon

Associate Director, SJSU Center for Community Learning & Leadership (CCLL); Lecturer, Sociology

Michael Fallon took the SJSU Ecological Footprint Challenge for reasons both personal and professional. A large aspect of his broad directorship is to connect student experiences directly with community service efforts and perspectives. As with many other participants, he thought he was already doing pretty well in his daily living choices towards sustainability, so more than three Earths* on his score stung him a bit. "I didn't know how I might lower it after my Fall score. It didn't feel like there was really that much room for change."

This "Earth" metric represents a rough calculation of how many planets would be required, were all current humans to consume at the same levels Fallon entered. As a little kind comparison for him, the SJSU staff average was 4.52 Earths, faculty averaged 3.99, still placing Fallon somewhere between a half and a whole Earth below his professional peers.

However, after some increased airline travel, including some promised trips to visit his aging parents back in Ohio, his footprint did go up a bit, from 3.52 Earths to 3.65 with his return score in the Spring.

"This has taught me that there are some things we can control, and some things we can't." For instance, the home he owns and lives in is a distinctive architectural design known as an Eichler, and limits the amount of change he can make to the building. His wife already uses the drier only once every three weeks. And the air travel hurt, too. When carbon offsets were mentioned as an option for those unavoidable infractions, he became very excited about this. He recalled there being some brief mention of offsets during the quiz, but suggested this be made a far more prominent an option and opportunity for the next generation of the Footprint Challenge.

It wasn't all frustration for him, however. "This isn't necessarily a new lesson, but it gave me the opportunity to recognize the different categories, how they are connected, and to better recognize my own efforts that are there. It also allowed me to see how easy it can be for many people to overlook or discard these practices, simply for lacking the education or resources."

And there were in fact some changes, even though he couldn't see them coming at first. "I don't know that this was a direct result (of the Challenge), but it was in conjunction with it, that we started our garden, which I then felt proud to get to claim while taking the survey the second time. I definitely feel motivated to grow more of my own food now. I'm also more committed to riding public transportation." Fallon also finds he goes online more, with bills, thick financial prospectuses, and other mailings that used to all be paper.

Retaking the footprint survey that morning also gave Fallon the idea of assigning an additional ecological dimension to the financial literacy course he teaches. As the students track their personal expenses, he saw the ripe opportunity for them to also form new environmental connections and report these back as well, for each time and way they spent money.

"I feel glad to have taken the effort. I have a way to get counted and acknowledged for it, while also having a raised awareness of the increasing scarcity of resources."This has raised my consciousness that this needs to be a global effort. And by that, I don't just mean including China and India, but including everyone all across this campus, and this country."

Angelica OchoaAngelica Ochoa

Administrative Coordinator/Peer Advisor ASPIRE/McNair Scholars Programs

Before landing her current job providing academically counseling for low-income and first-generation college students at SJSU, Angelica Ochoa was a first-generation college student herself here, earning a Bachelor's degree in Justice Studies and a Master's in Counseling Education.

She became aware of the SJSU Ecological Footprint Challenge when a couple of student staff mentioned it. "Plus a peer advisor, I think. It was everywhere around here, because that's what we do. We try to stay networked and keep our students connected with various campus resources beyond just academics, fraternities and sororities. Many of our students are underexposed to other forms of community involvement, and there are so many things available to them on campus."

Beyond getting her students involved, Ochoa found taking the challenge to be personally "pretty interesting. You don't stop to think about all the little things you do in your day. It makes me reflect more on what I'm doing beyond just recycling. Like making mulch for my plants. That's pretty easy to do."

Ochoa says she's more conscious about what she recycles around the office, too, as she points to a gathering collection of retired electronic equipment in the corner of her office. "We reuse a lot more paper, and we all check out the recycling station in the building before we go out and buy a brand new whiteboard or ink cartridges, or that type of thing."

Away from work there are other changes. Ochoa doesn't drive as much. This is made easier by the fact that she has recently moved much closer to work. Paying her own bills makes monitoring her water and energy consumption more obvious to keep track of, as well. "Since moving, we have a small patch of green now, so I want to start a garden. I'm Mexican so I have to plant jalapeños, of course!"

Has all this changed her relationship to the natural environment? "I always felt that I was caring, but now I feel more involved, and that I want to learn more. I've been in a 9-to-5 job for a while, but there is so much to do outside for free. Even just like walking down to the street to the farmers market, at San Pedro Square."

"I'm just a lot more conscious. Innocence is bliss, you know? But being exposed to what we're doing to the world is important. Especially if I'm going to have kids someday in the future."

How has the experience integrate with her areas of study and her profession?

"I definitely try to get students to be more aware, like getting a white board at home, instead of using more paper. And I've been quite a Nazi on the water bottle thing. I think everyone has a reusable bottle now. We use more electronic documents instead of paper. One year I started book recycling among their peers, to save money. Every year I try something new. Counseling is a form of passing along knowledge. So everything I know, I pass along to my students."

Karin JeffreyKarin Jeffrey

Graduate Student and Lecturer, Kinesiology

Karin Jeffery's involvement on the SJSU campus is extensive. In addition to her Master's student standing in the Department of Kinesiology with an emphasis in sports psychology, she also teaches the SJSU course in Stress Management, and is faculty advisor to Zeta Chi Epsilon, a largely community-service-focused fraternity that will soon be seeking non-profit status. She is also faculty advisor for the recently formed Quidditch Club. She also volunteers at the "Listening Post" table outside the Student Union occasionally, which offers a safe place for students to go and just be heard in a "lay counseling" setting.

Jeffrey took part in the SJSU Ecological Footprint Challenge back in October for both personal and professional reasons. "It's sort of funny," she explains. "I first found out about it, because your Footprint Quiz Drive recruiting table was set up right next to our Listening Post table, where we were almost being drowned out for all the enthusiasm going on there. I thought it was great, though, and it made me proud to be a part of a campus where this was going on."

She confesses that while she was excited to get the word out about the footprint challenge by every avenue available her across the campus, on a personal level, she "might not have even taken the quiz. I thought I was already doing pretty well. It was quite a surprise to see just how much of an impact my daily living truly still is."

She was also a little surprised that her ecological footprint actually went up, upon reentering her data this spring, from 4.61 to 5.02 Earths (This metric represents a rough calculation of how many planets would be required, were all current humans to consume at the same levels Jeffrey entered.)

Though disappointed, she does have some guesses as to why her footprint went up instead of down. "As part of my thesis research, I've had to do a lot of extra driving around, to conduct interviews." She also took an airline trip back East over the holidays to visit family, and holds a new appreciation for just how costly air travel is, from a carbon standpoint. (She was encouraged to hear that purchasing carbon offsets can be very helpful in this regard, when some travel cannot be avoided!)

Despite her increases in the area of transportation, she has observed herself making a concerted effort in her dietary choices, by choosing organic as much as possible, and lowering her meat consumption considerably. She is also more careful to turn off lights, TV, wireless modem, and placing her computer on hibernate when not in use. Though she admits that she doesn't use public transportation as much as she might, she has been trying to organize and cluster her errands when she does go out with the car, instead of going out quite as often or less planned.

She feels the most significant effect on her as a result of her involvement is "being motivated to find more reasons not to drive. Suddenly, volunteering to go all the way back onto campus to attend an optional meeting on my night off doesn't have the same rewarding feeling it used to, knowing the other larger impacts I was making." Telecommuting helps this.

Her own personal revelations aside, Jeffrey immediately knew she would offer extra credit in the stress management course she teaches for each student who participated in the Footprint Challenge. Because it's a General Education course, she was eager to be able to engage a broad cross-section of different majors among her students in the topic of sustainability. As far as directly helping these students in her stress reduction course via matters of sustainability awareness, she says, "This is the generation that is going to fix things. They need to understand themselves, and better stewardship is part of that. I can't recall right now exactly who said it, but there's a quote that goes something like, 'You can't be truly fulfilled and totally self-focused at the same time.' "

In addition to likely getting people into the great outdoors more, how does her concern for sustainability relate to her graduate academic specialization in sports psychology?

"A lot of people are resistant to see a 'regular' psychologist, but will readily see a sports psychologist, even though we use a lot of exactly the same methods when learning to overcome internal obstacles. Exercise enhancement is shown to be the most effective way to improve mood. It's my job to help people live happier, more fulfilling lives, which then allows them to be better Earth stewards.

" Although she has been an avid, long-time supporter of several causes that protect endangered species, Jeffrey has felt this conviction expand even more in her daily life. "Instead of just recycling, I'm now trying to actually reduce what I consume. Now when I buy something, I find myself wondering, 'What effect is this having on polar bears, or ice caps, or sea turtles?' "

John McGeeJohn McGee

Junior standing, Linguistics

John McGee is an SJSU Junior majoring in linguistics. He took part in the SJSU Ecological Footprint Challenge partly because he and his classmates had been strongly encouraged to do so as an assignment in the 9-unit Global Climate Change course he's enrolled in all year. "But I probably would have taken it anyway." He first learned about it when he saw a table for it set up at the campus's "Bike to School" barbeque event. "It seemed like a pretty open survey, and you don't have to be highly scientific to do it." Participating in the Challenge brought to his attention several things in his daily life that he can't change very easily, like the building aspects of his current home, which he does not own. But it also illuminated the many decisions a day that he can change in his lifestyle, "Like food, mostly. And transportation. I know I've eaten a lot less meat." McGee is much less "meat-centric—down to meat maybe once a day, instead of not even thinking about it before. Many of my other consumer habits were already pretty close, but now I'm much more conscious, looking for better choices, like organics, etc."

On the day of the interview, he was carrying motorcycle gear, a mode which he could not enter as a transportation option in the quiz. As an avid bicyclist as well, he felt there was also little in the survey to account for any human-powered commuting, like walking or bicycling, and even sent an email to share this observation. "In my case that most often translates to riding a bicycle, and it's not quantified in the study."

McGee's Fall score of 4.58 Earths was reduced to 2.54 Earths by the Spring, an impressive drop of 2.04 Earths. (This metric represents a rough calculation of how many planets would be required, were all current humans to consume at the same levels McGee entered.) He found taking the quiz "visually helpful, to see his consumption impacts broken down and quantified," he explained. "Like, 'OK, I'm effecting this biome here,' or 'My housing is high.' It allows a better awareness for the areas you need to cut down."

"The global climate change class has given me a lot of background information, and an understanding of what all this means. Calculating this is one more way to become familiar with these issues."

How does McGee see his experience with the Footprint Challenge relate to his major of Linguistics? "That's funny," he said, explaining a similar assignment given in the Global Climate Change class, which asked them all the complete a sentence to the effect of, " 'Global climate change has everything to do with my major, because...' Linguistics operates in the background of everything, so they're not exactly related, but they do have similarities. Both are studies of trends and observations over time."

Leah TremblayLeah Tremblay

Graduating Senior, Finance

As with many participants, Leah Tremblay, felt she had already been doing things pretty well before participating in the Ecological Footprint Challenge, and so was rather stunned to find out her footprint was as many Earths as it was. Still, in comparison with the SJSU student average of 4.48 Earths, her Autumn score of 2.90 was pretty respectable, even before she managed to drop it down to 2.09 when recalculating it again this month. (This metric represents a rough calculation of how many planets would be required, were all current humans to consume at the same levels Tremblay entered.) These types of measurements probably take on particular significance for Tremblay, who is an international graduating senior in Finance from Vancouver, British Columbia. Her career goal is to become a CFO, working in environmental accounting in the up-and-coming carbon trading market, with hopes of helping to mitigate global climate change.

Although she has long held commitments toward sustainability before now, she took the Ecological Footprint Challenge as a requirement of Dr. Cordero of SJSU's Meteorology department, and one of three professors teaching her Global Climate Change course.

Before all this, "I didn't realize how serious a part of Sustainability diet is. I've been eating way less meat. Though I did just have a huge ham sandwich!" she admits, laughing.

Has it changed the kinds of meat she eats, then? "Not really. Mostly just in the amounts. I wasn't a big beef eater anyway." (Beef is by far the most costly of meats, in terms of ecological footprint.) "I was surprised and saddened to learn that fish also has such a large impact, though. I used to think, 'Oh but it's only fish. Better, right?' "

Despite all the personal adjustments this knowledge has required of her, she feels more committed than ever to making the largest positive influences, at the largest scales. "This experience has also strengthened my bond and respect for our limited natural resources. I don't want to abuse them." Tremblay was recently hired in a sales position for a solar energy company here in Silicon Valley called SunRun, which she's very excited about.

Her relationship to the outdoors has taken a somewhat ironic shift as a result of the Challenge, as she realizes that well-planned, compact urban living is actually the most sustainable lifestyle for humans, as compared to living out in the suburbs, or even in a rural area. "Vancouver has a lot of outdoor focus, but Silicon Valley has the technical innovation, and outdoor playground."

In Vancouver, there are more cultural assumptions in place about sustainable daily practices. "Everyone is more, 'You know you're supposed to be riding your bike, right?' Here it feels like there's a little more freedom to make individual choices, but the options of living actively and sustainably are also very available here."

Her time living here in California has allowed her a different perspective on Canada. Though there are some large similarities in terms of outdoor lifestyles, etc, "the entire population of Canada is the same as that of California. If we had the same population issues to handle within the same space, could we make those same decisions as easily, I wonder?"

She feels that spending this time and consideration over so many sustainability issues will make her a much better and more responsible CFO. "I want to be in a position to choose A over B, when I know that A is sustainable over the long-term and serves all of the stakeholders."