Engaging Students: CSR meets Higher Education

This post also appeared in CSRWire Talkback.

collegeI had the good fortune of attending the recently concluded Water Summit 2012 in Milwaukee. A key theme that kept coming up, over and over was engaging youth.

Whether it was in references to the exchange program between American and Indian universities to promote aquaponics among water- and land-scarce communities, or connecting women-and-child literacy programs to indigenous water management systems, engaging future generations was salient throughout the two-day event.

Working in the office of sustainability at a Big 10 university, that theme holds special resonance for me. Advocacy and engagement are crucial pieces of our overall mission here at Purdue, including partnerships with various groups and departments within the university, as well as neighboring communities and interested corporations.

And we are not alone.

Universities across the nation, large and small, public and private, are increasingly realizing the importance of adopting and promoting sustainable living for their campus and communities.

Perhaps you’re wondering why universities should be doing this, when our core mission is higher education. In fact, it is precisely because of that mission that we embrace sustainability. Universities like ours are crucial to maintain and promote civic society and responsible living. We link learning to everyday practices, education with businesses and jobs, and skills with economic and social development.

Given these roles, it is in fact a wonder why moreuniversities have not strategically adopted sustainability. This is a decision that socially minded corporations should support wholeheartedly, putting their money where their mouth is. By being involved with university sustainability efforts, companies can effectively showcase their own social/ethical commitments, brand themselves accordingly, and attract these highly skilled, holistic-thinking and sustainability-oriented students to work for them.

Purdue’s current strategic plan, New Synergies, calls for the university to exemplify a “living laboratory” where new ideas and technologies are executed in on‐campus projects, with students, faculty and community/corporate partners assessing their outcomes over time. We focus on eight “pillars” of sustainability to guide us:

  1. Site considerations
  2. Water resources
  3. Energy and the built environment
  4. Materials management
  5. Food systems
  6. Academics and research
  7. Endowment/development
  8. Community relationships

Crucial to each of these pillars is that theme repeatedly highlighted at the Water Summit, youth engagement.

While we are always looking to better ourselves, some recent initiatives stand out in terms of marrying youth engagement and corporate social responsibility efforts toward sustainable living. The first is our recent collaboration with the ALCOA Foundation for a massive “recycling @ tailgating” campaign, which calls out to student and community volunteers to help clean up during and after home games at West Lafayette, Ind., where we are located.

Given the large amount of litter often generated by — and wasteful resource management — at large sporting events, this newly launched campaign is a great way to combine school pride with sustainable living, while also highlighting the interests and values of our corporate sponsor.

Another new project is the LEED certification of an existing campus building, spearheaded by a group of business and engineering students, in

collaboration with external consultants and campus-wide administration services. Through this project, we not only highlight the benefits of green building/design, but also inculcate socially responsible and entrepreneurial values in our students. By using traditional and social media in our outreach efforts, we hope to attract a large population of students, going well beyond the faithful few.

Through these projects and others, we hope to engage students and corporations, helping them (and us!) build a common future, which is clean, renewable, sustainable, and healthy.

Conversations with our students and events such as the Water Summit reiterate for me how crucial this process of engagement is, and why more companies should be reaching out to centers of higher education, across the spectrum, to this end.

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