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Monday, Mar 4, 2024

Getting to know the Residential Sustainability Coordinators

The dictionary definition of “sustainable” is “able to be upheld or defended.” However, the question of what we’re trying to sustain varies from person to person, whether it be the human race, natural resources or the earth itself. This question is what makes sustainability a banner under which people governed by all ideologies can gather.

The Residential Sustainability Coordinator Program (RSC Program) focuses the efforts of students on campus on education and initiative in support of sustainability. The program members consist of Head RSCs, one for each Commons, and first-year RSCs, five or six to each Commons. Though participants in a very new program, they have a lot of hope for its future on campus.

“More classes now just because of the times and popular culture contain some element of ‘how do we sustain ourselves for the future,’ ‘ how do we look at this in the broader context’ and that is why we are a liberal arts school, that’s why we are in Vermont,” said Sarah Simonds ’11, head RSC of Ross Commons. “I think that we are just providing a new channel to live and embody that not just in the classroom and not just on paper but in the way we live our lives and the way we continue outside of Middlebury.”

Starting small, the program this year is focusing its energies nearly entirely on first-year students, the hope being that as each year passes students will incorporate living sustainably into their daily lives until the whole school has some form of environmental consciousness.

“The point of this is to get every first-year on campus excited about being sustainable on campus. They’re going to be sophomores next year … it won’t just be focused on freshmen, it will be focused on freshmen with these sophomores that are already tuned in,” said Simonds. “Hopefully four years from now the whole campus will be tuned in and the RSC program will be the means through which everyone on campus can relate to sustainability.

Part of the goal of the RSC program is to aid Middlebury in reaching carbon neutrality by 2016. Some might fear it is an undertaking too immense, however the RSCs see it as something to strive for and to give the expansive job of educating about sustainability some direction.

“With the carbon neutrality of 2016 here there’s something to work for it’s not just go out and do this there’s an ultimate end goal,” said James “Jak” Knelman ’12, head RSC of Cook Commons.

Whether it is an environmental documentary or a late night snack and a chat about sustainability, the RSC program is looking to transcend all areas of education, every different group of students and become a uniting force on campus.

“I would like to see more of a united effort because there’s a lot of kids who do their part and there are a lot of kids who might ignore it,” said Joseph Putko ’12, head RSC of Wonnacott Commons. “My goals are just to make the RSC program well-known.”

Jak Knelman '12 — Cook Commons

Head RSC of Cook Commons James “Jak” Knelman ’12 is out to convert the non-believers. As an environmental studies major, Knelman wants to erase the “green and crunchy” and “tree-hugging” stereotypes and make living sustainably valuable to all students on campus.

“Sustainability is not just this far left political spectrum that people like to plot … it transcends many realms, whether it’s economics, social justice or environmental issues,” Knelman said. “It’s a pretty important thing in many ways and it’s just becoming understood that its not just one spectrum of people.”

While Middlebury College has a reputation for being sustainable, not all its students have jumped on the environmental bandwagon. Through the RSC program, Knelman and his fellow head coordinators try to address simple issues on campus that can make living sustainably easy for the skeptics and the apathetic.

“If we make it easy for [students], maybe it’s something that they’ll adopt and hopefully care about,” Knelman said.

Knelman and the Cook first-year RSCs are working on projects like getting shower timers on the first-year halls in Battell and signs in the laundry rooms to remind people that “bright colors” and “cold water” are synonymous.

“I really enjoy planning and then carrying out something, although it’s the first month [and we] essentially we haven’t really done much,” said Knelman. “Hopefully you’ll see more things around campus with our seal on them.”

While Knelman enjoys making these small changes on campus, they are not the means through which he believes the RSC Program will really affect the student body.

“I think awareness is a huge thing … if you get this awareness out and let people know what’s going on I think we can get to a better [place] and hopefully that will build and that will snowball and students will know what’s going on and start demanding different things,” said Knelman. “If the students are backing these [changes] the administration that has already been backing [them] will continue to back [them].”

Knelman believes student awareness comes down to energy consumption: the lights in dorm rooms, the showers, laundry, food, etc.

“There are some essential things that you need to have and some nonessential things that you want to have and that’s totally understandable,” said Knelman. “But there’s the things that are not so hard to cut out.”

Fostering change is a difficult task, but Knelman sees this as a great opportunity to take small steps in a new direction.

Joe Putko '12 — Wonnacott Commons

Head RSC of Wonnacott Commons Joseph Putko ’12 sees sustainability from a slightly different perspective than most environmentalists. While he has applied his devotion to astronomy to all areas of his life, it has become a main motive for his belief in sustainable living.

It all began with Putko’s idol, American astronomer Carl Sagan. Sagan asked that the Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977 to take pictures of Saturn, turn its camera as it emerged from behind Saturn so as to take a picture of the Earth. The camera captured a pale blue dot — the first photograph of Earth. Sagan sees this as a defining moment for humans in understanding the cosmos. In his book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, Sagan said, “For me, [the image of ‘our tiny world’] underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve every known.” For Putko, Sagan’s words have become the backbone to his belief in sustainability.

“I can essentially derive all my values from astronomy, so I wish I could share or encourage people to try and gain some of that cosmic perspective,” Putko said. “I took a class here called Faith, Freedom and Ecology, and one thing that we had presented to us was that [environmental change] is going to take almost a change in faith — not a change in technology or behavior. It has to start with faith, your values.”

While not necessarily a conservationist, Putko found the RSC program to be the perfect way to get involved on campus due to its large overlap with the commons system.

“I’m a first-year counselor (FYC), I was last year … and last year I sort of was an RSC in some ways,” Putko said. “I would encourage everyone to recycle and made sure people were turning off the T.V. in the lounge … but I don’t think all FYCs made those steps. So I was like, ‘Well [being an RSC] would be pretty convenient as an FYC since I would be working with a group of first-years … and then its something I care about — sustainability.”

Since taking the position as head RSC, Putko has already made strides in raising awareness about sustainability with his first-years. Though not yet implemented, he has gained approval to add compost bins to every hall in Battell. Together with waste management and the custodial staff, there is now a new system in place for collecting and transporting compost to the recycling center. On a more personal level, Putko is working with Weybridge house to organize a Wonnacott dinner in promotion of sustainability education.

As far as Putko’s future in the RSC program, his goals are not astronomical.

“My goals are to do my part as an RSC, to contribute to Middlebury’s larger goal of sustainability and as far as each month goes — I know I’ll have ideas,” said Putko. “I’m not trying to grab people and shake them. I am when it comes to astronomy but when it comes to sustainability, I’m not … I wish I could share or encourage people to try and gain some of that cosmic perspective.”

Sarah Simonds '11 — Ross Commons

For Head RSC of Ross Commons Sarah Simonds ’11, sustainability is all about energy — not just conserving it, but approaching this important issue with excitement and passion. In participating in the RSC program, she has found that energy in her first-year RSC counterparts.

“First-years have so much energy and we all remember that, but you start declaring majors and you start thinking about your thesis and it is so hard to have that beautiful naïve vision of change and excitement and empowerment that you get when you first come to college,” said Simonds. “I think that’s something that we’re trying to capture in this program.”

Together, Simonds and her first-year RSCs work closely to integrate sustainability into the lives of other first-years, especially.

“[I] basically provide the connecting link between the first-year RSCs who have all these ideas and are in touch with their peers, but they don’t know how to get to a place where they’re acting on their ideas,” said Simonds. “I help them make it happen.”

As an environmental studies major, sustainability is an issue “very close to [Simond’s] heart,” though not the main reason for her entering the RSC program.
“I’ve always felt really close to the Ross community and was active in Commons Council before I went abroad but it’s hard to keep that continuity going,” said Simonds. “So when I got an email about the RSC program over the summer, it seemed like the perfect way to get back involved in the commons system, which I really do love.”

While the commons system is an important factor in promoting the integrative qualities of the RSC Program, Simonds hopes that the RSC Program can enhance the effectiveness of the Commons system itself. She sees each new RSC initiative as a chance to increase participation and interest in the Ross Commons community.

“This year Ross council is very focused on family and that’s kind of their central platform … we as the Ross RSCs are really focused on nourishing that [relationship],” said Simonds, “which is why we’re having our food sustainability event as part of the fireplace café. We’re going to have it in Ross commons, have it be something that people come down in their pajamas for, eat some apple crisp and talk about local farmers.”

Though the RSC program is driven by the College’s lofty goal of carbon neutrality by 2016, Simonds’ goals are more basic — having an impact on the lives of the first-years as well as channeling their energy towards tangible changes on campus.

“I would love to see the five freshmen that I’m working with — and in extension all the freshmen in Hadley — go into sophomore year feeling like from day one they were a part of a bigger image of sustainability and that they really are making an impact on this College and by proxy on the world,” she said.

Abigail Borah '13 — Brainerd Commons

Head RSC for Brainerd Commons Abigail Borah sees environmentalism as ever-present in the political sphere. For Borah, the RSC program was an excellent way to bring her off-campus efforts to campus in order to benefit first-years. This summer, Borah worked on the Race to Replace Vermont Yankee campaign as well as on a grassroots campaign to push for clean energy solutions and strong gubernatorial candidates who supported environmental issues.

“You can’t talk about ‘environmentalism,’ ‘localism,’ ‘movement building’ or ‘community,’ without strengthening the roots with the people around you,” said Borah. “This starts at home. For college students, that’s in the dorms.”

As anyone political knows, one needs a strong support base to run a good campaign. Borah’s first active move on campus in her campaign for sustainability is to build support among students, especially those not typically involved.

“My goal as an RSC is to support freshman as they discover opportunities for conceptualizing and actualizing their environmental ideas on campus,” said Borah.

Next, one needs support and involvement of organizations.

“I see the position as RSC a way to connect and coordinate work of sustainability-oriented groups,” said Borah. “There’s a lot of great work being done on campus already, and while I think liberals lend themselves to a diversity of projects and ideas, it’s helpful to stop and talk about what each of us is doing, in hopes of supporting and challenging one another.”

Borah cites student groups like the Solar Decathlon as organizations that have integrated sustainability with many other facets of education: architecture, design and media.

A campaign needs incentive and initiative to unite its supporters. For the month of October, Borah is taking the theme of “food” to heart, organizing a “local snack night” with Vermont cheese, apples and cider, a volunteer gardening work-day and improvements to the dining hall.

“For me, food serves as a universal axis point for talking about sustainability; everyone needs to eat,” Borah said.

Along with these delicious events, Borah and her co-workers are working on a “Clean Plate Club” project, which would assign points for students in each commons who did not waste dining hall food. In addition, Borah hopes to create a “pilot commons garden to provide fresh fruit and vegetables for commons events.”

While Borah’s work with environmentalism on campus is widespread and integrative in its methodology, her outlook on the importance of sustainability is rather scientific.

“I see sustainability as a balancing out — Newton’s opposite and equal force,” Borah said. “Sustainability is … forging a mutually beneficial coexistence of two (seemingly) contradictory forces, people and their natural environment. We take, so we must give. We fight, so we must reconcile. We reap, so we must plant. It’s the middle way. It’s about respecting the dignity of what was and preserving what will be by acting with what is now.”

With all the action Borah is taking towards promoting sustainability, it cannot be long before Middlebury reacts.

Ian Trombulak '12 — Atwater Commons

With a father like Professor of Environmental & Biosphere Studies Stephen Trombulak, it is no wonder that Head RSC of Atwater Commons Ian Trombulak ’12 has the sustainability bug. While he has never taken an environmental studies class nor become involved in on-campus sustainability projects, Trombulak needs no reminder on how to be sustainable.

“Ever since I’ve been old enough to listen to and understand dinner table conversations, I’ve gotten the environmentally friendly message,” said Trombulak.
Trombulak has every intention of passing the message along, just as his father did. In becoming an RSC, he has taken his first step in helping the student body realize the importance of sustainability.

“In my history classes, I have been profoundly affected by the sacrifices past generations have made so that we can enjoy the quality of life that we do,” said Trombulak. “I find it borderline immoral for anyone to continue at their current rate of consumption without concern for the mess our children and grandchildren will have to clean up … Ultimately, I want to be able to look my grandchildren in the eye and tell them honestly that I did everything I could to provide a safe and stable planet for them to live on, just like I had.”

While Trombulak places emphasis on the events and initiatives the RSC program is stimulating on campus, he finds that instilling these sustainability values into every student’s consciousness is the most important goal. Just as living sustainably has become second nature to him, he believes that is the only real way Middlebury will see legitimate change.

“More than any behavioral change, there needs to be an attitude shift on this campus and beyond. Even at Middlebury, which is considered to be a very green institution, there are people who aren’t concerned, and don’t care to be concerned, with environmental issues,” said Trombulak. “There’s also a tendency … to ignore these issues simply because we can. No alarm will go off when you put a recyclable plastic bottle in the trash, and no one is going to shut your shower off after 10 minutes on the dot. We are provided with what feel like unlimited resources, and it is absolutely crucial to remind ourselves that this is not the case.”

While Trombulak recognizes that the RSC Program is in its youth and its impact on campus remains small at the moment, he is energized by the excitement in the class of first-years on which the Program is largely focused this year.

“[They] give me hope for the future of this College.”

The future of sustainability at the College and the world is perpetually an issue for Trombulak, however he has no immediate goals as a Head RSC. This year is only the beginning and while it has started slow, he looks forward to being surprised in May.

“I expect this to be a situation where by the end of the year, I’m thinking, ‘Wow, this was transformative in ways I never even imagined.’”