The Drive Behind Sustainability at the University of Houston

I never thought I stood a chance when I applied for the communications assistant position for the Office of Sustainability department of Auxiliary Services. I was a junior at the University of Houston, aimlessly looking for somewhere to find real purpose. Studying at a school with more than 40,000 students made it very difficult to […]

I never thought I stood a chance when I applied for the communications assistant position for the Office of Sustainability department of Auxiliary Services. I was a junior at the University of Houston, aimlessly looking for somewhere to find real purpose. Studying at a school with more than 40,000 students made it very difficult to find a place to belong. My introverted nature made it even more difficult for me to believe I would ever find my niche.

I came across the job listing on a university email, and I thought it would be an opportunity to develop my communication skills. I never imagined that this seemingly small, part-time job would have such a huge impact on my studies, my personal life and most importantly, my mentality towards sustainability.

Trying to encourage sustainability in a city that relies so heavily on the oil and gas industry is like swimming upstream. I myself was one of the misinformed citizens of this polluted Texas city who didn’t know the difference between recycling and composting. Once I opened my eyes to the imminent problems our global community faces, it was impossible to go back to my old ways. Sustainability isn’t just a cause that can be pushed aside. So many of my friends, family and professors see it as a distant concept that doesn’t apply to them.

They could not be more wrong.

Sustainability applies to how our economy runs, how our society is built, how our community thrives, how we obtain resources, how we build new homes, how we eat—our entire livelihood.

Once I started working at the University of Houston Office of Sustainability, my passion to express the importance of sustainability grew. As the communications assistant, I craft messages about sustainability that are disseminated across campus. I prepare monthly newsletters that reach thousands across campus, write blogs and use social media to promote sustainability to the UH community. I strive to do my best to inform people who are currently living in my previously blind mindset that change isn’t just important, but necessary.

The most important aspect of my role as communications assistant is engaging with the UH community. Now that our society is so dependent on technology, social media is one of the most effective tools to create relationships between our office and other students. Most of the students who engage with us are already leading sustainable lives. The challenge lies in engaging with those who aren’t. At the beginning of each semester, I manage a social media contest to encourage students to bring their own reusable bottles instead of disposable bottles that contribute to plastic pollution. By using #BYOBottle on Instagram and Twitter, students are eligible to win prizes. The hashtag blew up our social media pages during fall 2015, and students all over campus were posting selfies with their bottles and using clever captions to express their commitment to avoiding single-use plastic.

The Office of Sustainability does a lot more than just launch social media contests. Outreach is a huge component of the work we do because it’s necessary in order to inform others and consequently create change. The biggest outreach event that the Office of Sustainability hosts is the annual UH Sustainability Fest. The festival brings in hundreds of students and Houston community members to connect them with people leading the sustainability movement in Houston and on campus. Sustainability Fest 2015 featured an acroyoga demonstration, a Creative Expressions Contest and giveaways for attendees. Despite the inclement weather, Sustainability Fest 2015 marked a new wave of interest in sustainability. We received positive feedback on the event from attendees who said they finally understood sustainability and grasped issues on a deeper level. Despite 300+ attendees, Sustainability Fest 2015 produced a bag of trash the size of a beach ball. Everything else was recycled and composted!

Outreach is heavily focused on educating those who aren’t aware of sustainability issues, but it’s important to recognize those who have already made a personal commitment to sustainability. With that in mind, I decided to take an approach that aimed to inspire others by spotlighting those who are taking action. This spring, I will be spearheading the “Sustainable Coog” series. Students, faculty, staff and alumni, or “Coogs”, will have the opportunity to be recognized for their work by being featured in our blog, social media and the UH sustainability website.

The Office of Sustainability also offers students an opportunity to become directly involved with the implementation of campus sustainability projects at the University of Houston. The Sustainability Task Force is comprised of nominated and appointed students, faculty and staff who work together to drive change on campus. Current projects include funding for the construction of a campus garden shed, a campus tree care plan and a new campus sustainability policy.

The Office of Sustainability was born out of a need Auxiliary Services saw for a department that bolstered the implementation of sustainability across campus. But aside from the Office of Sustainability, UH Auxiliary Services has done a lot to implement sustainability as a whole. The UH Cougar Woods Dining Hall, for example, is LEED silver certified, and it only consumes 32 percent of energy compared to a conventional building. Food scraps from UH dining halls are used in a campus community kitchen to prepare meals for Houston’s Third Ward community. So far, over 700 pounds of food has been salvaged. UH is also part of the Fair Trade Campaign and has installed EcoGrounds, a company that produces sustainable coffee from Rainforest Alliance certified farms, which meet rigorous environmental, social and economic standards to conserve wildlife and protect local communities. Largely due to the collective efforts of Auxiliary Services departments, the University of Houston achieved the gold rating on the STARS report, which measures campus sustainability on campuses all over the U.S. In fact, UH is the first public Texas institution to achieve this recognition.

Although all of these efforts are noteworthy, there are areas that Auxiliary Services can focus on to improve sustainability. Developing more partnerships with sustainability groups across Houston and even within the university can help facilitate change. Food waste is being addressed, but there is an opportunity to reduce it even more. Installing composting bins in UH dining halls can be a great way to eliminate food waste almost entirely. The idea of compost bins is even more feasible considering that there is already a compost bin available at the UH Campus Community Garden, which is located a few feet away from one dining hall. With additional funding, the garden could even serve as a composting center for the entire campus. Purchasing more produce locally is another way that the dining halls can be more sustainable. The UH campus bookstores already adhere to the Fair Labor Association’s Code of Conduct that requires monitoring and reporting on the situation of factory workers worldwide. Taking it a step further, Auxiliary Services can implement a living wage initiative to ensure that products offered to students meet living wage standards for workers in the textile and garment supply chain. Printing and Postal Services has incorporated Forest Stewardship Council certified paper into its procedures, which means the paper is produced by companies who help replant and maintain forests. However, they could implement a more strict recycling policy that can significantly reduce the amount of paper waste on campus.

It was through the UH Office of Sustainability that I was truly able to define where I stand and where I wanted to be. In a campus filled with hundreds of departments and colleges, the Office of Sustainability stands apart in my eyes. The people I’ve worked with are unique. They care more about helping others out than they do about themselves. I’ll never forget the bond that I have formed with my coworkers. Birthday celebrations, potlucks and weekly team meetings hold a special place in my heart. Most importantly, the manager of the Office of Sustainability was a catalyst in my growth as a young adult. She taught me about communications, but most importantly, she opened my eyes to things I didn’t even know about myself. It’s easy to say she’s my mentor, but even more than that, she is my role model. Her tenacity and commitment to her dreams is inspiring. I can say with full certainty that the friendships I’ve made through the Office of Sustainability will be life-long. My experience as an undergrad was not just enhanced through my job with the Office of Sustainability. It gave me a purpose beyond my own personal career goals. The Office of Sustainability showed me a new way of viewing the world, and the lessons I’ve learned here will carry with me for the rest of my life.

Gabriela Contreras
Gabriela is a native Colombian who was raised in Houston, Texas. She is a graduating senior finishing her Bachelor of Arts in Public Relations and Marketing. Her work with the University of Houston’s Auxiliary Services has allowed her to both discover her true passions and find a family within the UH Office of Sustainability. She is the third place winner of the 2016 Student Author Contest.

Next Feature
Education benefits programs help students earn while saving
By Ryan Chase