Students, staff see world through green-colored glasses

By Sandra Snyder

Some missions were simple and direct. “I’m marching for bees.”

Others were far-reaching and overarching. “I’m marching for US,” as in the very people whose bad habits increasingly threaten the planet they occupy.

Carrying cause-advertising posters or placards, waving banners or wearing sandwich boards, the more than 400,000 vocal, strong-willed and strong-legged people who descended upon New York City to take part in the People’s Climate March on Sept. 21, two days before President Barack Obama and other heads of state met at the United Nations for a climate summit, represented many causes but were of one mind:

Someone must speak for the earth – and everyone and everything on it.

That message is resounding more and more at the University of Scranton, where sustainability advocates are growing in numbers as well as passion.

That the University was able to fill a bus with two dozen staff members and students to attend the march was significant, especially considering the worldwide event took place during Family Weekend. Still, even in relatively small numbers, the University contingent delivered a huge message, literally as well as figuratively.

The banner the group carried was “gigantic,” 16 by 10 feet, said Sister Mary Anne Foley, a member of the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame and an associate professor in the University’s Theology and Religious Studies Department.

“We were very cool with that banner,” Sister Foley said, explaining the genesis of attending the march at all.

She had heard about the major event, she said, and planned to attend, even if she drove herself, but hoped the University would get involved as well, rounding up the troops, so to speak.

That’s when Mark Murphy, director of sustainability, stepped in, secured the bus and rallied the students.

“Ecology is something very important to us,” Sister Foley said.

Recalling the vast representation of people – grandparents, college students and young couples carrying children, for example  – as well as locations – busloads from Vermont to California and everywhere in between – she said the march “really had the feel of a festival.”

“It was part of something so much bigger than us,” she said.

It also was no easy physical task.

“For my old legs, it was a decently long march,” Sister Foley said with a chuckle.

“It really felt like being part of history,” she continued.

Indeed, the march was world-history-making, the largest one yet across the globe. It took place in conjunction with 2000-plus other rallies in 162 countries involving millions of people.

The University’s contingent, Murphy said, was sponsored by the Office of Sustainability, the Committee on Justice and the Sustainability Club, all of which work together to educate the University population as well as the public on all things green.

The People’s Climate March kicked off a semester packed with sustainability initiatives, such as two kayaking trips on the Susquehanna River that took place not two weeks after the march, on Oct. 4.

The trips put 48 University representatives out on the river “to raise awareness of the environmental assets that are around us,” Murphy said, and to encourage responsibility in protecting those assets.

A week later, in conjunction with the Community Outreach Office, student government and the programming board, the Sustainability Club, now in its second year, gathered about 450 students for a Street Sweep project, which broke students off into rubber-glove-wearing, trash-bag-toting teams who scoured the Hill Section of Scranton on cleanup duty.

And two weeks after that, the Sustainability Club invited local children to campus for safe trick-or-treating but instead of just handing out traditional candy, club members helped the trick-or-treaters turn used water bottles into planters, Murphy said.

Also during the Halloween season, the University participated in the Pennsylvania American Water Company’s UTap Challenge, competing with seven other schools in six counties and coming in second in a contest designed to rally Facebook votes as schools raised awareness about reusable water bottles.

For its efforts and as runner-up, the University was awarded an Elkay water-fountain bottle filler, bringing the number of such high-tech devices installed on campus to 10.

The devices, which are designed to cut down on plastic waste and include digital counters to tally how many times bottles are refilled, have been installed in strategic spots, such as the cafeteria and gym, for the past two years, Murphy said, adding, “They are very, very popular.”

The concept may seem simple, but Murphy said part of the battle is simply “making people stop and think about this sort of stuff.”

Next up, on Nov. 11, came the Fall Sustainability Symposium, co-sponsored by the University’s Office of Career Services, which focused on sustainable-energy businesses as well as internships and careers.

Also this semester, the University was featured on WVIA-TV’s Greenlife Pennsylvania, a half-hour program that airs at 8 p.m. Thursdays. It “touched on a lot of neat things going on at the school,” Murphy said.

One of the final efforts of the semester was a shoe recycling drive, which ended Dec. 10, he said.

Then the University will shift into spring mode, for which the agenda is equally packed. Earth Day activities will take place in April, more kayaking trips are planned, and a Spring Sustainability Symposium is likely to include a biking activity making use of the Lackawanna River Heritage Trail and local parks, Murphy said.

“I’m noticing that bicycling seems to be gaining more popularity on campus,” he said, noting most major buildings on campus contain bike racks and at least one bike, often belonging to an employee.

Another highlight of spring sustainability-wise will be an evening of environmental science, Murphy said, in which local students will be invited to tour the Loyola Science Center, which met the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design gold standard.

The tours will be given in conjunction with an environmental essay contest University staff judges, and awards will be presented that evening.

All of these initiatives fall under the umbrella of one of the University’s most beloved mantras, which is Caring for Creation.

“Our sustainability efforts are an important part of our Jesuit and Catholic mission for justice,” Murphy said, echoing his oft-stated belief that we are all responsible for the planet.