Students Leading the Way to Environmental Sustainability

I love it when alumni come back to Johnson County Community College (JCCC) to say hello. Recently I had the chance to take Trent Brining, former president of JCCC’s Student Senate, to tour the college’s two-acre Open Petal Farm, where students learn sustainable agriculture skills while providing fresh produce to the college and surrounding community. Brining now works in the financial industry, but ten years ago, he was part of a group of students that created a “green fee,” officially known as the Sustainability Initiatives Fund (SIF). JCCC students pay one dollar per credit hour into this fund that, on average, has translated into $350,000 annually. The SIF supports a variety of sustainability projects that have transformed the physical campus and the way that staff and faculty think and teach about sustainability.

While many of the students who worked for the fund’s creation graduated before it was fully implemented, they left behind a mechanism that has rewarded their efforts. After I showed Brining the farm and told him about the various sustainability projects on campus (many of which I will describe below), he expressed pride in what he and his fellow students began. As he put it, “To know that something you helped start took flight and blossomed into something amazing is gratifying and inspiring. What we set out to do was create awareness and give JCCC the ability to be at the forefront of sustainability initiatives, and clearly all of those goals have been met and far surpassed what we could have imagined possible at the time.”

Community colleges serve almost half the nation’s undergraduates. These students are living in a world where climate change, population pressures, and globalization are all reconfiguring the relationship between people and their planet. Across the world, students are mobilizing and demanding that their colleges address these issues that will critically affect their futures. With good reason, some frustrated students see a lack of action on climate change as a kind of intergenerational warfare. Hard choices deferred by Baby Boomers in positions of authority will yield a less resilient future for students as temperatures climb, sea levels rise, and habitats vanish. This article tells the story of how students at JCCC enabled the growth of the sustainability movement at the college over the last decade.

The History of Sustainability at JCCC

Located in Overland Park, Kansas, JCCC is a suburban community college with a commuter student body of approximately eighteen thousand students taking for-credit courses and almost another nineteen thousand students taking continuing education courses. As of 2018, the college had twenty-three buildings with 1.9 million square feet of enclosed, conditioned (heated or cooled) space on its 245-acre campus.

In 2008, Terry Calaway, then president of JCCC, signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. The following year, JCCC formally created the Center for Sustainability (CfS) with funding secured by then-Senator Sam Brownback through a congressionally directed project. I was appointed as CfS’s executive director. CfS is responsible for integrating sustainability into JCCC’s curriculum and daily operations, thereby transforming the physical campus into a living, learning laboratory.

Before these events took place, student activists had organized around environmental issues. For example, in 2006, students asked the board of trustees to commit to embracing green building practices, and in 2008, students formed the Student Environmental Alliance as an advocacy and service club. But President Calaway’s commitment and the activity in the CfS encouraged more student activism.

In 2009, students in an honors forum (an interdisciplinary capstone course in the honors program) took the next step. Cotaught by Eve Blobaum, sociology professor, and Patti Ward, then interim director of the Honors Program, the course focused on sustainability broadly defined, and students in the class decided to make meaningful, sustainability-related changes on campus. Two student leaders of this effort, Erin Willard (pre-med) and Jessica Garden (nursing), met with me and shared a list of ideas that the class had developed, including a plastic water bottle ban and the creation of a green fee. I was impressed with the quality of the class’s research on how other colleges implemented these types of programs. The Honors students realized the importance of an independent funding stream for sustainability efforts and identified the green fee as the most significant item on their list. We collectively tweaked the proposal to include a student committee that would help determine how the funds would be allocated.

The students quickly met with a supportive President Calaway, the Student Senate, and the college’s board of trustees. As president of the Student Senate, Brining became an enthusiastic supporter of the idea, and the Senate voted unanimously to support it. In addition, student volunteers gathered thousands of supportive signatures from the general student body. Such broad student endorsement convinced the trustees that JCCC students cared so much about making their campus more sustainable that they would put their dollars to that end. In response, the board created the SIF, which went into effect in spring 2010.

Projects funded by the SIF are approved by the Student Sustainability Committee (SSC), which comprises students elected by designated student organizations, as well as at-large members who apply for seats. Brining served in its first cohort. At present, the SSC has eleven members with CfS staff and faculty advisors providing guidance and oversight. Project proposals come from faculty, staff, and students. To ensure professional development for these students, the SIF funds a group of SSC members to attend the annual Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) conference. At the conference, SSC members see best practices from higher education institutions of all types that they may implement back at JCCC. The SSC itself was recognized by AASHE with a Campus Achievement Award in 2017.

Our Physical Environment

SSC-funded projects have transformed JCCC’s campus. From early efforts such as planting fruit trees at the college’s Children’s Garden and building a green infrastructure stormwater management project with fifty thousand native plants (using federal funding, with the SSC providing the college’s match) to the recent funding of a solar canopy parking structure that hosts solar panels while providing shade, the SSC makes students proud to be on a campus that visibly values sustainability. As one of the Honors students said after the SIF was created, “I’m glad that sustainability is part of this campus.” Positive responses on our recent Noel-Levitz Student Satisfaction Survey bear that out, with students noting that they value JCCC’s renewable energy and recycling efforts.

SSC pilot projects demonstrated the viability of technologies later adopted by the college’s facilities staff at scale. Student-funded LED lighting upgrades in stairwells tested the technology successfully and led to a systematic retrofit campaign across campus using college capital funds. A recent student-initiated and SSC-funded feasibility study convinced current president Joe Sopcich’s administration of both the ethical and financial reasons for implementing a plan to produce 20 percent of the college’s energy from rooftop solar panels using college capital funds. These efforts blend into the college’s PowerSwitch program that reduced overall energy usage by 25 percent since 2008 despite adding new buildings. JCCC has won regional and national sustainability awards from groups like the Mid-America Regional Council, the National Recycling Coalition, the American Association for Community Colleges, and the US Green Building Council.

The SSC also supports student employment in sustainability work at JCCC. Depending on the semester, between five and seven student interns learn about materials management by managing the college’s recycling streams or about farming by supporting Open Petal Farm. Beyond earning a solid wage, these students learn what sustainability means when theory meets reality. While not all interns find their career paths changed from this employment, many have changed majors and gone on to pursue sustainability-related graduate degrees or careers, including with the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Land Institute. The interns’ work to enhance campus recycling has helped JCCC boost its waste diversion rate (the percentage of waste kept out of landfills) from 18 percent to over 60 percent. More than $180,000 of the revenues from recycling has gone to student scholarships—a fact that is displayed on recycling bins across campus, encouraging students to recycle and support the funding of their fellow students.

Learning about Sustainability

While transforming the physical campus matters, ultimately, community colleges are about learning. SSC funding supports faculty as they integrate sustainability concepts across the curriculum through Sunflower Project grants. Since 2013, more than thirty-two thousand JCCC students have taken courses with sustainability content, many of which were created or enhanced with Sunflower Project support. These courses range from general education classes like Spanish or Introductory Accounting to technical courses in solar installation. Entire programs like interior design, computer-assisted design, and cosmetology have been revised through the Sunflower Project process. Students from various programs on campus have applied for SSC funding for sustainability projects related to their fields. For example, horticulture students received support to bring in speakers for their Horticulture Sciences Day, while nursing students spent a day with an expert on greening health care. SSC funding also supports the annual Epicenter Conference for college and high school students with themes like sustainable entrepreneurship, sustainable design, climate change, and science communication.

Cocurricular activities around sustainability are also prominent at JCCC, and integration of the arts is especially noteworthy. In an SSC-funded student sustainability sculpture contest on campus, students have displayed almost twenty sculptures since 2011, featuring reused materials and messages about environmental issues. One piece, Tired Beast, reflects the fatigue of industrial society and is made from discarded tire treads, while ZooPlastic Angler, an anglerfish made of plastic and other trash found on campus, brings attention to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. SSC funding, in partnership with the JCCC Performing Arts Series, has supported public performances of BELLA GAIA, a live concert featuring NASA satellite imagery put to music, and DJ Spooky (Paul Miller), who samples sounds of the melting Arctic into hip-hop music. The SSC also supported remodeling the college’s performing arts spaces by reupholstering seats rather than replacing them, thereby reducing landfill waste.

Beyond the SSC-funded projects, students at JCCC are involved in a variety of efforts. Environmental science students partner with local environmental groups in Stream Teams to assist with watershed restoration and stream cleanups. The college’s sustainable agriculture program offers students interested in urban agriculture a chance to make a difference in the region’s food system. Finally, the Student Environmental Alliance continues to engage in education and activism on campus.

In 2015, four JCCC students shared these stories with the rest of the world when, along with students from the University of Kansas and the University of Oregon, they won a US State Department–sponsored contest and traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia. The students—Kait Bridges, Megan Gladbach, Kendyl McDougald, and Emily Reno—presented their qualitative research at an exposition alongside other “Eco-Reps” from Russia and the United States. The group researched JCCC students’ awareness and views of the college’s sustainability achievements and created a brochure to raise awareness of those sustainability efforts. These students from a community college from Kansas more than held their own while talking about sustainability.

Students Taking the Lead

As with Brining, I have had the pleasure of welcoming other student leaders of these efforts back to JCCC to see the results of their work. Willard has addressed the SSC that she helped create. Courtney Masterson, a member of the first SSC that funded the college’s green infrastructure stormwater project, is now a native plants expert and has consulted on how the college can best maintain that project. These students are proud of what their college has been able to do because of what they began. As Masterson put it, “The time I spent on the SSC provided exposure to leaders in environmental fields, opportunities to make real changes on campus, and the inspiration I needed to continue my education in conservation and ecology. . . . There’s no better place in the region [than JCCC] to learn about sustainability, our natural resources, and green energy.”

Students across the country and the world are demanding that their colleges address the challenges of climate change and global environmental stress. At JCCC, students themselves have taken the lead, and our administration and board of trustees over ten years (and two college presidencies) have been wise enough to let them. The positive results speak for themselves.


Jay Antle is Executive Director of the Center for Sustainability and Professor of History at Johnson County Community College.

Select any filter and click on Apply to see results