5 Ways to support students learning about sustainability while studying abroad


How can studying abroad help develop \”global citizens\” – leaders who have a sense of belonging and responsibility both with the peoples of the Earth and with the Earth itself?

In my last post about program design and management I shared about my work with The Forum on Education Abroad\’s Subcommittee on Sustainability Standards and how we offered revisions to their Standards of Good Practice and Code of Ethics documents in four areas:

  1. Program Design and Management
  2. Student Learning
  3. Staff Training and Office Management
  4. Promotion

In this second of a four-blog mini-series, I will flesh out ways we can support students learning about sustainability while studying abroad, using Living Routes (the organization I direct) as a case study. The question we asked was:

\”How [can a study abroad] organization foster faculty, staff and student awareness, of the impact of its program and its students on the natural and social environment and actively encourage its program staff and students to minimize behaviors that will negatively impact this environment?\”

Here are five suggestions we came up with:

1) Encourage and support overseas faculty and staff awareness of local environmental issues (e.g. water, energy, food).


Challenge faculty to develop a project, assignment, or discussion that connects a topic in their curriculum with some aspect of sustainability (e.g. indigenous wisdom, life cycles, diversity, limits to growth).  Stay alert to opportunities for student engagement with international eco-initiatives such as the 10/10/10Global Work Party or eARTh Exhibitput on by 350.org or 48GoGreen\’sInternational Online Eco-Film Competition. I will share such opportunities when I find them (a good reason to subscribe to this blog, hint, hint).

Other resources to get you started include Middlebury College\’s Going Green Guide for Schools Abroad Directors, Abroad View\’s Go Green Resources, and Transitions Abroad\’s Responsible Travel Handbook.  You might also encourage your staff and directors to listen to this interview with environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben about traveling, studying abroad, and activism.

Living Routes programs are all about sustainable community development so awareness of local and global environmental issues is a prerequisite for all staff and faculty.  We set up RSS feeds and Google Alerts and share relevant resources with each other.  While occasionally criticized by \”old-school\” academics, we also tend to hire MAs with diverse backgrounds in the Sciences, Arts and Humanities and the Social Sciences as we believe in an integrated and transdisciplinary pedagogy (and Ph.D.s are often so specialized, it is difficult for them to bridge disciplines).

2) Orient students to the local and global environmental and social impacts of their program participation.

… Not to make them feel guilty, but to help them understand these interconnections and further appreciate this opportunity to travel and study in a foreign land.  Suggest they read Astrid Jirka\’s article on Sustainable Travel and Study Abroad or adapt Middlebury\’s list of Sustainability Resources for Students Studying Abroad.


There are zillions of good resources to help students understand andmeasure their carbon footprints and this will likely be the topic of a future blog post.  Living Routes asks students to upload their itineraries and estimated ground travel onto a GoogleDoc spreadsheet that automatically estimates their individual and collective carbon footprints.  We use this information to educate students about their environmental impacts and pursue our Carbon Conscious strategy.

3) Make students aware of contrasting cultural norms and practices and their corresponding environmental impacts.

Given that the U.S. has one of the largest ecological footprints of any country, students can study just about anywhere and lower their impacts simply by adopting local cultural norms and practices such as conserving water, air drying clothes or (God forbid!) doing away with toilet paper.

Some articles Living Routes has used to support students awareness of their \”cultural baggage\” include Richard Slimbach\’s Mindful Traveler, Peggy McIntosh\’s famous White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack and the Ethical Traveler\’sThirteen Tips for the Accidental Ambassador.

4) Provide student opportunities to reduce and/or offset their impacts.

Once measured, it is important to explore ways to reduce and/or mitigate student\’s environmental impacts.  While also worthy of a blog post, a good place to start is theGreen Passport, which invites students to commit to specific eco-actions while studying abroad and to connect virtually with other students who have taken a similar pledge. Costa Rican Trails also has a good list of environmental Tips for Travelers.


Several years ago, I developed a Carbon Commitment Calculator, which we have used to encourage Living Routes\’ students to make lifestyle changes that reduce their carbon footprint.  Then, I found Climate Culture, which takes this concept to a whole new level, including the ability to create \”avatars\” and virtual worlds that evolve as you become \”greener\”.  You can set up groups for students to work together to reduce their programs\’ impacts.

While our emphasis should always be on reducing emissions, we\’ll never get them to zero. So, what should we do about these remaining emissions?  Living Routes has developed a fund, which we continually add to based on each program\’s emissions (at $15/mT CO2e). We use this fund to support ecovillage-based carbon mitigation projects. Examples include solar energy (PV systems, solar cookers, solar thermal systems, solar refrigeration, etc.), afforestation/reforestation, biogas, wind power, and Earth-building.

5) Provide opportunities for students to pursue meaningful and socially responsible engagement with the local community.

Encourage students to walk, bike or take public transportation and to shop locally.  Arrange opportunities for students to live (and spend time!) with local host families to help them understand and integrate into the local culture.

Service learning provides further opportunities for students to engage with and give back to their local host communities.  They get to work on real-life problems, apply what they\’ve been learning, and become active local citizens.  The National Service-Learning Clearinghouse is an excellent resource on this topic and I intend to write a future blog post on criteria that Living Routes has developed to make sure such opportunities are as sustainable as possible.

These are just a few ways to bring sustainability more into the curriculum and daily lives of students while studying abroad, but it is by no means an exhaustive list.  Please add your ideas, suggestions and questions in the comments so we can further develop this topic together.  Thanks!