Students collaborate at SELF sustainability fest

The 2nd annual event promotes student discussion on environment.

by Hailey Colwell

As the board chair of Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, Emma Wright doesn’t get many chances to relax by a bonfire.

But that’s exactly what the University of Minnesota senior will do this weekend with students who are equally interested in the environment.

Each fall, students and faculty from five of the University of Minnesota campuses — Crookston, Morris, Duluth, Rochester and Twin Cities — come together for the Student Engagement Leadership Forum on Sustainability conference.

On Friday and Saturday, 10 to 15 students from the Twin Cities campus will present and discuss environmental topics for a variety of disciplines at the Duluth campus.

“It’s a really great opportunity to network with other students across the state who are going to be working on similar projects,” Wright said. “It will definitely give me great ideas on what other people are doing.”

The goal of the conference is for students who are already involved in sustainability in their schools and communities to share ideas and build leadership skills, said Beth Mercer-Taylor, coordinator of the Institute on the Environment at the Twin Cities campus.

“That’s the kind of students we want to come together and then give them skills to go even further,” she said.

The students will share ideas through lightning talks, where they summarize the high points of a current project in five minutes or less. They then break into groups to brainstorm ways to implement these projects on other campuses.

The University’s Morris campus ranked among the nation’s greenest campuses in 2012, according to Sierra Magazine. The campus came in at 47th, a bump up from 69th last year.

Shane Stennes, sustainability coordinator at the Twin Cities campus, said he looks forward to seeing students using sustainability to connect the five campuses.

“Sustainability is a unifying factor across campuses,” he said. “We really see that coming out in events like this.”

Students selected to attend come from multiple areas of study and have typically been involved in campus sustainability groups, worked on energy efficiency or recycling initiatives or have taken a class sustainability project to the next level by implementing it, Mercer-Taylor said.

“It could be academic and it could be personal, vocational or your hobby,” she said.

In the past, students have presented maps of the sustainable food options in the Twin Cities, online guides for how to promote sustainability in the office and ways to market organic produce, Mercer-Taylor said

This would not follow the format of a typical academic conference, she said.

“It’s about developing collaborative leadership, engagement [and] hands-on projects, so it’s about something different than a traditional academic research approach.”

Christy Newell, a sustainable studies and art student at the Twin Cities campus, works with the Minnesota Youth Environmental Network to connect communities across the state in sustainable efforts. On Friday, she’ll present about the group’s recent efforts at the conference.

Newell said she looks forward to having an audience of student leaders involved in environmental work.

“It’s really powerful, if not just for the reminder that you’re not alone in the work that you’re doing,” she said, “but also to get ideas and inspiration from other people about what can be done.”

Wright will present about her experience at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development  in Brazil in June. It focused on what universities around the world are doing to promote sustainability. She said she’ll talk about how international ideas can be applied to the University of Minnesota system.

Wright said she also looks forward to talking about sustainability in a more relaxed environment.

“It’s just all about having a good time while learning from each other.”