Five Questions About Sustainability
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By Gariot P. Louima
Forty Honors College students and six leaders of the Student Government Association spent a week in Europe studying sustainability.
For seven days, they took up residence at the historic Leopoldskron Palace in Austria to participate in the 2008 Salzburg Global Seminar. And while sitting in rooms originally designed for the family of Salzburg Prince-Archbishop Leopold Firman on an estate that was a shooting location for the Oscar-winning film, The Sound of Music, they looked at the issue of “Education for Sustainable Development” from every possible angle.
How serious are the issues? Are there enough natural resources left to maintain future generations? What are other developed countries doing that we are not? How can Americans, the world’s most ravenous consumers, make things better? And what impact, if any, can a group of students from Florida have on the rest of the world?
When the students returned to their respective campuses, their classmates and professors noticed an immediate change. “We see not just physical growth or intellectual growth,” said Dr. Alexandria Holloway, dean of The Honors College. “There is a passion for learning that, if they didn’t have before left they, became more evident upon their return.”
Some of the students and five faculty members sat with MDC magazine to discuss the Salzburg experience and to talk about next steps in getting the MDC community energized about conservation. Unlike some roundtable forums in which a moderator leads the discourse, MDC magazine asked just five questions in the course of the hour-long conversation. What follows is an excerpt of that dialogue.
Initially, why did you all want to participate in this program?
Brandon Janvion, broadcast journalism major: Initially, to be honest, I thought: ‘Free trip; sounds great.’ I expected to make friends with kids from other campuses. Every year, people come back from Salzburg and they say it all changes your life. But I thought: “Well, maybe not.”
It’s pretty straightforward. Who doesn’t want to go on a free trip? I’m from Miami. My dad is from Cuba and my mom is from Trinidad, but I’d never left the country.
But when they were prepping us, it was made more apparent as to the purpose. And when you get there, it was so much more than traveling.
Alberto Torres, international relations major: There were three orientations at Wolfson Campus. We went over a folder of information they gave us the first day. That’s when we realized we’d have to do a lot of work. I mean, the first meeting, there were reading assignments, discussions, a PowerPoint presentation.
Carla Abad, psychology major: And the speakers.
Torres: Yeah, they gave us bios of all the speakers.
Yamily Arab, international relations major: They split us up into groups, and we were supposed to use all the information we gathered during the week to create a group presentation.
Torres: Yeah, we were split into groups the first day. Most groups started doing research the first day. My group went over there with a lot of information.
Shane Johnson, English major: I’d spoken to people about how much work this was going to be. But I was excited to be able to sink my feet in just a little bit in a place where we wouldn’t have parents. It’s like going away to school. In a way, I took it as preparation for transferring (to an upper-division university after graduating from MDC). I mean, that location feels like an Ivy League school.
Ivan Vargas, journalism major: Like Hogwarts.
The group laughs.
What did you think about the subject of sustainability before Salzburg, and how has that opinion changed?
Geraldine Dambreville, chemical engineering major: It’s one of the most intriguing subjects. Before, I used to hear about the obvious – save the Earth – but I didn’t have a broad sense of what it really was. Most of us can say that after Salzburg, we are speakers for sustainability in Miami.
Vargas: It was great because it was so relevant to our generation. I used to get down because our generation has no great struggle, no Flower Power like the ‘60s. All of these preceding generations had these great figures and icons. Each knew what they wanted, what they were fighting for. Sustainability is our next big thing. We have to take it on.
Chris Migliaccio, natural science professor: For these students, these issues are bigger than just the seminar. For example, Geraldine is an international student from Haiti. She can return to Haiti – the poorest country in the western hemisphere – with this knowledge and try to implement new strategies there. And in whatever she does, she has a group of people who can support her.
Johnson: There is a consciousness that we grasped when we went to Salzburg. We realize there are so many more issues that we have to face, and the only way to resolve them is if the world as a whole works together. When the president of El Salvador spoke at the Wolfson Campus commencement, he listed all of these negative things happening in the world. These events may seem remote but have an impact. Salzburg awakens you to global issues in the same way.
Abad: When I applied for Salzburg, I didn’t know the subject. I knew little about sustainability. A lot of people didn’t have that [knowledge]. When I got there, it was so much to take in. I felt empowered. We know now that we can make a difference at Miami Dade College and in our community.
Vargas: I didn’t know about sustainability. I was hoping the topic at Salzburg would be genocide. I’d researched that topic as part of my work for the Model United Nations. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed when I heard the topic was sustainability. When I got there, to Salzburg, there was all of this knowledge and education. I felt really great … and now I’m a spokesperson on sustainability at Miami Dade College.
Janvion: What Salzburg has done for me is made me aware, at least, of the problems in the environment. It opens your eyes to the reality of the severity of the problem, and it’s equipped us with the tools necessary to do something. Now I care about the environment. I’m not a “tree hugger” by any means, but I think we should be caretakers of the Earth.
Vargas: One thing that we learned while over there is that sustainability isn’t just about the environment. It’s a social issue, an economic issue. All of these other problems spring from it.
Johnson: Addressing the issue of sustainability is the only way a society can progress.
Dr. Miriam Frances Abety, psychology professor: These students were faced with real adult worldwide problems, and they are now capable of being agents of change. What are we going to do when we’re done? Now you know that you need to do something for the planet. They’re young students contemplating adult problems.
Dambreville: The experience really made me grow as a person. Before, you don’t fully realize what’s really happening beyond your little bubble. I can go back home, go back face to face with my mother and say: “Yes, I consider myself an adult.” I’m not saying I have the same knowledge as she and my dad, but now that I’m more concerned with what’s happening around me, I feel that I can make a difference.
Migliaccio: The expectations of the seminars were that they were prepared when they arrived, and they were. The students all hit the ground running on day one. But the growth in one week was tremendous. They came in like such puppies, is how one Salzburg faculty member put it, but at the end, they were fully conversant in sustainability. Just to see the growth and maturity in a week. Geraldine hit it on the head: You grow up quickly. The students really rose to the occasion magnificently.
Abad: I think we always saw this problem (depletion of natural resources), but we always viewed the issue from the vantage point of the spectator. When we got there, we realized that this issue encompasses so many areas that it touches each and every person in the world. We saw the interconnectedness, that whatever happens in China or India impacts us and how we live in Miami.
Which leads to my third question: What kind of pressure was on you as a member of the faculty to prepare 49 students for the academic rigors of Salzburg?
Abety: We were forced to read and keep ahead.
Dr. Emilio Kenny, biology professor: We were always there to serve as beacons, to help guide them if they needed assistance.
Migliaccio: This is the fifth year the College has done this. So we knew pretty well what’s needed for them to succeed. The faculty members got up to speed on the content. But our role, really, is to learn, not teach. For me, it was pretty exciting because this is the first year we’ve done anything that was closely related to a subject that I teach.
Generally, though, when we worked with the students, we employed a much lighter touch than we would in our classrooms.
Kenny: When we returned, I definitely made an effort to make sustainability a part of my course.
Abety: They were taught global citizenship. Separating students into groups even before departing, for example, forces them to get a different perspective. Different cultural perspective. Remember, these students represented all campuses and they got to interact with classmates they generally wouldn’t see on their home campus.
By the time they were ready to board the plane for Europe, they developed a sort of group cohesion. They were no longer students representing North or Kendall campuses, but was a single unit representing Miami Dade College.
Arriving in Salzburg, they were able to think about an important global issue outside of the box of MDC. Globally, what are our responsibilities?
Greco: What was surprising was how involved they got in every aspect of preparation. They got a 20-minute presentation on the German language. At the end of that quick presentation, they hadn’t even been taught how to count in German …
Torres: Or say I’m hungry.
Greco: Still, you’d see them at lunch practicing German. These students had taken it upon themselves to learn the German language on their own.
Migliaccio: You knew you were being thrown into something very different … I’ve never seen a group so actively speak German so much. If I hear the word krankenwagen …
Grace Castro, journalism major: Or krankenhaus …
Migliaccio: There was no fear. Even if you don’t say it exactly right, Europeans are very appreciative if you just try to open up an avenue for communication.
Abety: Beside the seminar, there was a lot of social and cultural learning. Faculty members would take students on excursions in Salzburg. They learned sustainability, but also the rich history and culture that abounds in Austria.
Marta Magellan, English professor: I’ve always thought our students are very open when it comes to different cultures. That’s part of living and studying in Miami. But they were also open to different cultural phenomena. Take, for example, the music. They experienced a lot of the European cultural traditions that they don’t get much of here. … And they couldn’t get enough of it. One student became completely interested in classical music after seeing chamber music performance. And I know that Abel and Jen saw the Vienna Philharmonic. It was amazing for them to see such a performance. One student confessed she’d never been to the ballet before, and in Salzburg, she and her classmates were able to see several pieces performed at the Opera House by a Russian troupe that was so very good.
Abety: They also visited the Freud Museum and the Natural History Museum.
Janvion: It’s just really cool to know that you’re standing in a place full of history. You go and stand in a place and have the privilege of listening to someone play a classical piece, Mozart. Ivan and I were there, and the guy says to us, “250 years ago, Mozart composed the piece where you’re standing.” I was blown away by that.
Vargas: When he said that, I was thinking: “Cool, Mozart composed the piece in Austria.” But he said, “No, in this very room, Mozart composed this song.”
The room was dead quiet after he said that. It was so …
Janvion: I started crying; it was surreal. Everywhere we went had amazing history. Franz Ferdinand’s small summer house, built 500 years ago. And you go in there and they tell millions of people have come through here. It’s a very humbling experience.
Greco: Miami is so volatile. We don’t have a sense of sustainability, even in architecture. The landscape changes daily. There’s no history.
Kenny: When students are faced with these new experiences, they don’t shy away from it. They want more teaching. They want more.
What did you take away from the experience?
Vargas: When we have the knowledge, we care. A lot of people say kids these days don’t care about the world. Many of us around the table admitted we didn’t know the issue of sustainability before Salzburg, but when the knowledge was presented to us, we were, like, this is a big deal.
Johnson: It’s easy to be indifferent when someone lectures on a topic to you. But in Salzburg, they brought in speakers who are working in the field. When someone talked about solar panels, they showed us real life application. How it’s being used by people around the world. It wasn’t just speaking in the abstract or presenting a kind of one-size-fits-all on sustainability. But use what you have. What do we have in Miami? We have a lot of sun. Why aren’t we using that resource?
Castro: The seminar was effective because you got to design an implementation plan as part of your group project. You learned that no matter what profession you enter, you have to be aware of the need for environmental sustainability.
While we were there, each team was given a region and a problem to solve for that region. The point was to give you an idea of how you might carry things over in your life. Consider your circumstances and your environment and work out what makes most sense.
Abety: It’s not about intelligence or power but the ones who are willing to change that will survive. You see the Alps overlooking the Leopoldskron, and you realize that by comparison you’re rather small. Your perspective changes. We are the ones who need to make the change.
Greco: You don’t hear silence anymore. There is such a beauty to that. You realize that because of global warming, this (the snow in the Alps) may not be here anymore. My grandchildren may not be able to experience this.
Vargas: It makes me wish that every class could have this kind of learning.
Johnson: it was a holistic approach to learning.
Vargas: Basically, take stuff you normally learn only in theory and apply it practically. Practicality was the essence.
Binsen González, political science major: It’s pretty simple: We are the Earth, so we have to protect it.
Dambreville: And not only for our generation, but for seven generations after us.
González: There is no difference between us and the environment. To destroy it is to destroy ourselves.
Abad: We saw how European countries work and how in touch they are with the issue of sustainability. There were solar panels everywhere, recycling bins…
Vargas: In Austria, 100 percent of all their water and air is heated by solar energy. Austria had the first environmental law implemented in 1850. It was, if you cut down a tree, you plant a tree in its place. That is almost the perfect metaphor for sustainability; keep in mind who’ll come after you.
Abad: We were shown that this isn’t impossible. Another country – another developed country -- is doing it.
Dambreville: It’s interesting that the issue of green and sustainability is popping up everywhere.
Vargas: It’s everywhere, but some people still couldn’t care less. I don’t want to sound like some angry Emo kid, but America has this way of picking up trends or issues, commercializing it, and spitting it back at you.
Migliaccio: Maybe you are part of that mechanism to prevent this kind of “greenwashing.”
Abety: As long as there is a dialog …
Magellan: Companies go green or produce green because they know you want it.
Torres: But to what extent do we know they are actually going green?
Castro: The people who are most passionate will hold them accountable.
Janvion: We have to reach the people who are involved in government. We have to bring people together, despite their political views for this one cause. And we have to make people more aware of what’s possible. We don’t want this to be just another trend, because trends fade like the wind.
Vargas: In high school, we used to have these retreats, religious retreats. The idea was to become closer to God to strengthen our faith. People would come back from those retreats completely passionate about what they’d experienced. Then a week would go by, and they were just as they were before the retreat.
So, how do you make it stick? What can you do to make sure the issue of environmental sustainability isn’t the latest fad to disappear?
Vargas: We’ve come up with an action plan and will be sending a formal document to the District Board of Trustees. Since we’ve been back, we’ve been collecting signatures on Kendall Campus to let the administration know this is something we take seriously.
Torres: At InterAmerican Campus, we’ve been gathering students who are passionate to support our manifesto.
Abad: Student Government is playing a big role. At North Campus we’re promoting the three R’s: reduce, reuse and recycle.
Migliaccio: SGA at Wolfson Campus also developed a one-page manifesto that actually predates Salzburg. And the College’s Earth Ethics Institute has been really active for some time, organizing workshops, bringing in speakers, getting students and faculty involved collegewide. There’s been some movement to make sure new buildings and buildings under renovation are greener. And the College sponsored workshops to find out about the environmentally friendly cleaning products available on the market.
There are also Green Teams at every campus. They’re made up of faculty, administrators and students, and they make recommendations on the campus level about what we can do better.
Arab: The advantage is Miami Dade College is a large institution. What we launch here can spread more quickly into the community. We can definitely make a difference.
González: I read somewhere that it only takes 2 percent of the population to start a social movement. MDC students make up 7 percent of the population of Miami-Dade County.
Johnson: Every movement starts with a small number.
González: We have to realize too the power we have in voting. We have to be aware of what’s happening in the College and what’s happening in our city.
Vargas: It’s up to us to go out there and keep asking.
Kenny: This seminar didn’t end for these students when they boarded the plane. A seed’s been planted in their consciousness. Wherever they go as a professional, they’re going to take this with them.