2 February 2023

Are we doing our part for sustainability?


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Do our university students know and/or care about sustainability or sustainable development goals? If so, do they have the motivation or confidence to become change agents for sustainability in the campus and beyond? In a time where sustainable development has become a pressing issue with support from various bodies, it is essential that universities cultivate a culture of sustainability amongst their campus communities in order to breed a new generation of change agents and leaders for sustainable development.

A 2018 international survey conducted by the National Union of Students of the United Kingdom (NUS-UK) found that university students, regardless of their fields or majors, are largely supportive of campus sustainability. Indeed, the report found that 91% of student-respondents across the globe strongly believe that universities should actively incorporate education for sustainable development at their campuses.

As for whether university students are able or willing to become change agents, that is a question that Assoc. Prof. Dr. Zeeda Fatimah Binti Mohamad, University of Malaya’s (UM) expert on sustainable development, sought to answer.

But first, what exactly is a ‘change agent’? Fred C. Lunenburg of Sam Houston State University, Texas defines ‘change agent’ as “the individual or group that undertakes the task of initiating and managing change in an organization”. Change agents, whether they’re internal (i.e. managers or employees) or external (i.e. consultants or advisors), play a vital role in transforming the organisations they work for by focusing on organisational effectiveness, improvement and development, putting different perspectives on a situation and challenging the status quo. Naturally, most change agents are born in universities where exposure to different subjects, topics and politics grant students with the knowledge and skills needed to put things into perspective, find out what an organisation needs to do and come up with new and interesting ideas. Indeed, many campus sustainability initiatives succeed thanks to the actions of student change agents.

Dr. Zeeda and her team investigated students’ perceptions of their role as change agents in campus sustainability and how they could thrive, primarily focusing on students actively involved in campus sustainability activities from three major universities in Malaysia: UM, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), and Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM). “Out of over the 200 students contacted, only 10% of them had identified themselves as change agents” says Dr. Zeeda, “through a series of interviews with this 10% of students, we’ve identified three factors as the determinants of students’ roles as change agents in campus sustainability.”

In light of these findings, it has become vital for universities to fulfil those factors in order to encourage students to become change agents and thus get more involved in sustainability within the campus and beyond. UM, in particular, owes the success of its many sustainability initiatives (e.g. UM Eco-Campus Initiatives, UM Living Labs (UMLL), Water Warriors, UM Zero Waste Campus, The RIMBA Project, etc.) to its student body. Indeed, the culture of sustainability is practically woven into every nook and cranny of campus life.

Water Warriors (WW), founded in 2013 by then recent UM graduates now alumni Affan Nasaruddin of the Faculty of Science and Siti Norasiah Abd Kadir of the Faculty of Engineering, is one example of UM’s campus sustainability success stories. “We initially started off as a grassroots organisation. Together with support from the campus communities and student volunteers, we made WW one of UM’s preeminent living labs” said Affan. It is thanks to this support from UM’s students that WW had succeeded in its original goal of revitalising and rehabilitating Tasek Varsiti to its former glory. And its success continues with other projects focusing on reviving and maintaining various water bodies in and around the UM campus as well as improving water-related infrastructure in and around the campus. One such project is the installation of a Rainwater Harvesting System (RWHS) at the APIUM (Academy of Islamic Studies, UM) Surau designed to provide an alternative water source for Friday prayers without drawing from existing pipelines.

The RIMBA Project is another UM sustainability initiative that owes much of its success to the student body. A living lab focusing on campus greening and biodiversity conservation, RIMBA Project aims to improve the quality and sustainability of urban living spaces and instil nature awareness in the UM campus community and general public. RIMBA’s tree tagging, and planting initiatives have largely been successful thanks to heavy involvement from student volunteers. Indeed approximately 300 trees of 74 species have been planted as a result of these initiatives. One of these tree planting programs was the planting of 100 dipterocarp trees (forest species) in front of the UM Library, a big event that involved the participation of both students and staff.

Dr. Zeeda speaks from her own experiences that empowering students to become change agents is as simple as knocking on someone’s door. She described her first-hand experience of receiving tremendous support from members of the campus as she planned a symposium on the roles of universities for sustainable development upon her return from completing her Ph.D. thesis in Sweden. “Ever since then, I have championed several successful community engagements and sustainability efforts” she says, “And I continue giving my unwavering support to student change agents in paving the path to a sustainable future.”

Of course, we must also understand how university students view themselves, how they think and what they expect from the campus community in order to find and give them the motivation and confidence needed to become change agents.

Students generally see themselves as leaders, supporters, or ambassadors when partaking in sustainability activities on their campuses. As leaders, these students are given the opportunity to embrace the sense of ownership, responsibility, and confidence needed to thrive in making the right sort of change. A university is seen as a platform that allows these change agents to develop their knowledge about sustainability and as a place for these individuals to put their sustainability ideas into action. Thus, these change agents acknowledge that each support gathered from the members of the campus, be it the administrators, educators, or fellow students, is a much-needed pat on the shoulders to flame their burning passion for bringing about change. Finally, there is a crucial need to break the top-down chain of command when it comes to decision-making as far as campus sustainability is concerned. Instead, a much more strategic move would be to provide these student change agents a seat at the table to co-lead the process of revolutionizing education for sustainability.

Above all, we must remember that leaders are not born; they are made. Ending poverty, combating climate change and adopting sustainable growth are among the many pressing matters forcing governments and institutions to act quickly. The presumably carefree persona of youths has been unmasked, and underneath lies a concerned citizen of Earth ready to fulfil his/her destiny to make the world a better place.

As Dr. Zeeda once said “Whether you’re a student who’s still studying for their degree, a university lecturer or just a concerned citizen, we must all do our part to help foster a new generation of change agents starting at the university-level. Because it is these change agents who will ultimately be responsible for guiding our path into sustainability and a greener Earth.”

Are you willing to become an agent for campus sustainability?

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