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Students Help Drive Southern Sustainability

Megan Rudne Hoffecker and James Hoffecker met as members of the Environmental Futurists, a student group that focuses on improving environmental policies and practices on campus. Now both graduate students, and married to each other, Meg and Jim are working to emphasize to the campus community the value and importance of creating a more sustainable environment.They both are student representatives on the university’s Sustainability Committee, chaired by James Blake, executive vice president, and Robert Sheeley, associate vice president for capital budgeting and facilities operations. This committee, which grew out of Southern’s signing of the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment several years ago, has been charged with making the university carbon-neutral by 2050, no small feat. The Hoffeckers are making strides towards this goal in the work they both do on campus.

The interim director of Hickerson Hall, Meg graduated in December with a master’s degree in special education. Jim is working on a master’s degree in history and is currently a student worker who serves on various sustainability projects around campus. He is a staff member of the university’s new Office of Sustainability, which coordinates and oversees projects aimed at reducing the university’s carbon footprint. Both Hoffeckers are involved with the campus’ organic garden, but their efforts extend much farther into the campus community and beyond, into Greater New Haven.

Meg chairs the Residence Life Sustainability Committee established by Rob DeMezzo, interim housing director, this year. The committee just held its first annual Fall Sustainability Programming Series as part of its commitment to working with departments across the university to engage students in making healthy and environmentally-conscious decisions in all aspects of campus life. The series kicked off with a presentation by the Hoffeckers that included an in-depth discussion of current campus sustainability initiatives, including the Plant It Forward Project and environmentally-sensitive transportation options available to students on campus. Other events in the series included a presentation on food by Danny Dawkins, resident district manager of Chartwells; an America Recycles Day event and a campus visit from chef Bun Lai of Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, who gave a presentation on sustainable sushi, along with a tasting.

Meg says the committee is also working on facilities issues such as lighting and low-flow showerheads for the residence halls. The group is discussing a plan for a living space for an First-Year Experience (FYE) group that centers around the topic of environmental sustainability, as well as thinking about retrofitting a campus townhouse to be a state-of-the-art “green” living space. The committee is also considering ways to upgrade second- and third-year student housing so that a student could theoretically live in “green” housing for all four years of his or her on-campus experience.

Jim is especially focused on the campus’ organic garden, part of the Plant It Forward initiative. His goal, he says, is to get more students in the garden. He has been working with FYE professors and their students to teach them more about the ecology of the area and how to take care of the environment. He calls this a “permaculture” approach and says it is “a truly sustainable approach that learns from the environment while also returning to it – learning about what an ecosystem is and how it functions.”

Jim explains that part of the Plant It Forward project is connecting New Haven residents with local food by showing them how to grow it in their own yards. He debunks a popular misconception that a large amount of land is necessary to grow food. Southern’s organic garden is the “size of a small yard,” Jim says, “and we have raised a lot of food there.” Plant It Forward was one of several initiatives from greater New Haven that were highlighted at a recent fundraiser to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the New Haven Land Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to land conservation, environmental education and community vegetable gardening in New Haven.

Along with working with students in the garden, Jim coordinates the university’s Day of Service in the fall and the Big Event in the spring – Southern’s two largest community service initiatives of the academic year.

Suzanne Huminski, instructor of science education and environmental studies, praises the Hoffeckers’ efforts at helping the university become more “green.” Huminski says, “Jim’s and Meg’s dedication is the heart of Southern’s campus community garden. Beyond their skills growing food organically, which are impressive – they also make the garden a place for the campus community to enjoy. Students, staff, faculty, and administration all help with the garden’s care. From freshmen in my Inquiry 101 courses to graduate students in sustainability courses, my students have learned from Meg and Jim about projects ranging from fence building, to seeding and weeding, to cooking with a solar oven.”

The Hoffeckers are also members of the New Haven Bioregional Group, which sponsors walks, films, canoe trips, potlucks and other events to help residents of the Quinnipiac bioregion connect with their natural and built environment. Megan and Jim invited members of this group to do a presentation on growing corn in the campus garden. Working on sustainability projects such as the campus garden and the Residence Life sustainability initiatives represent their “personal passions,” Meg says.


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