The stickiness of sustainability through the international student journey
Given the facts, figures, and sentiments, are we poised yet to make an educated guess on the staying power of sustainability as a major concern in higher ed?
Will the pandemic-induced technological revolution that enacted wide-scale disruption impact progress regarding environmental consciousness within the sector?
“From a personal point of view, I think it’d be a huge missed opportunity if not,” says Tweddle, “It’s an opportunity for universities to realign and redesign programs to communicate themselves in a different way, and meet those sustainability concerns of the students.”
“Everything has been thrown up in the air and the sector has done amazingly well to adapt to that. Going forward, some universities are considering doing carbon offsetting for international students as a potential marketing opportunity. It’s something that would speak to an international student’s concerns over traveling thousands of miles to be an international student,” he elaborates.
As it pertains to these particular students, travel is obviously a huge contributor to the carbon footprint universities inadvertently create. At Unibuddy we believe that this issue can be mitigated by implementing innovative tech strategies to help students connect, but the question stands whether we may see perseverance in these carbon offsetting practices too.
That said, this initiative has actually already been in place for years at some institutions. In an Inside Higher Ed article dating back to late-2019, Elizabeth Redden writes, “Some colleges and study abroad providers purchase carbon offsets to mitigate the environmental impact of study abroad-related travel. The Foundation for International Education, for example, announced last week that it would be offsetting all round-trip student travel from the U.S. to the United Kingdom and Ireland starting this spring.”
The University of Maryland, College Park, for example, started implementing carbon offsetting for this purpose as early as 2017, investing 85,000 USD between 2017-2018. American University did the same in the 2017 school year.
Given that digital student engagement platforms and carbon offsetting alike have been burgeoning trends in international student recruitment since before the dawn of COVID-19, the jury is out on which will gain the most steam fastest to become a mainstay.
From policy to pandemic and onward
Student interest in sustainability extends all the way to Capitol Hill in the US. Since congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced the detailed climate proposal that is the Green New Deal in 2019, students across the country have been vocal proponents of progressive environmental policy.
One student at Ocasio-Cortez’s alma mater, Boston University, provides some insight in an article by the university’s media publication. The standing environmental affairs director for BU Student Government at the date of release comments, “What makes the Green New Deal so exciting is that it factors in the concept of environmental justice. Oftentimes, those at the margins of society are those who are most affected by the symptoms of environmental issues, like pollution, land and water mismanagement, and climate change.…Moving to a carbon-neutral society will in part reduce inequality that is perpetuated by environmental factors.”
Not only is the interest in both the Green New Deal and sustainability on the whole a product of increasing interest in the state of the planet, but the state of human conditions.
That said, COVID-19 should have been a key indicator of repositioning regarding the role of sustainable initiatives in the college decision-making process.
“I think that the context of the global pandemic has shown us the vulnerability of the planet and of humanity, and it’s hit us that we can’t ignore the big problem,” Tweddle says.
“It’s perhaps brought into focus that action is needed—the time for talking needs to be over and hopefully there’s some positivity that comes out of this past year in that we do see a driver of action from the powers that be to move the needle.”
Indeed, the pandemic has shown us the fragility of our shared human experience, and there’s been a collective alteration in our perception of what we truly value most—what we can and can’t withstand and what we do and don’t require.
“I think that universities, if they haven’t already, will start to adapt to that and know that they need to talk up their environmentally-friendly credentials to show students what they’re doing in order to quell those fears and position themselves in a positive light,” says Tweddle.
The bottom line? Students have had more time than ever to reckon with their concerns over the climate crisis in the past year, and their university choices are, in fact, beginning to reflect that.
If change begets more change, we’ll surely find that sustainability will be a part of the conversation until a more environmentally equitable sector is forged in its wake.