A personal history of sustainability in study abroad


Sustainability initiatives have been blossoming in the field of education abroad over the last three years.  Instead of dryly outlining these events, I will use my blogger\’s prerogative and put them in the context of my personal journey.  I am proud to have become a player in this arena, but as you will see, my involvement happened rather serendipitously and many others have helped move these initiatives forward.

For me, it began in 1992, when my wife, Monique, and I were living at Findhorn, a spiritual community, education center, and ecovillage in northern Scotland.  In the middle of our year there, a friend brought over some students from Prescott College and, in the space of a week, I saw each student “pop.”  One by one, their lives were transformed simply by immersing themselves in this new age community.  I remember waking up one night with goose bumps and a clear inspiration to help build a “living” bridge between academia and ecovillages (although the word didn’t exist then).

Fast forward 15 years.  Living Routes is seven years old and I am attending my first national NAFSA conference, with 10,000 professionals in the field of international education.  You see, when I started Living Routes I was really focusing on creating these ecovillage-based programs.  After a few frenetic \”start-up\” years, I finally lifted my head above water, looked around and realized there were a lot of people doing programs like ours, and they called themselves “study abroad.”  I started going to some regional conferences and connected with around 6-10 sustainability-minded colleagues.  In early 2007, we set up a listserv for folks interested in sustainability in study abroad (which now has over 400 members) and started the Green Passport, which I will talk more about in a future blog.

But in May of 2007, I felt like I was going to Mecca. NAFSA\’s annual conferences attract everyone involved with international education.  I just wanted to join every environmental group, committee, and network I could find.  So, you can appreciate how shocked I was when I discovered there weren’t any.  Huh?!  It didn’t make sense.  Here were 10,000 “worldly” professionals and there were no organized forums for discussing the environmental and social impacts of international education? My dismay came to a head in a session titled something like “Staring Into the Sea: Study Abroad in 2050.”  I thought here at least we would have to consider how issues such as climate change and peak oil were going to impact study abroad; but instead, the facilitators merely described current demographic trends and extrapolated them out for 40 years.

I spoke to a few NAFSA staff who suggested I petition to start a Sustainability Special Interest Group (SIG), which would give us some room on the NAFSA website and a room to meet in at the national conference.  It didn’t sound like much, but it was at least a place to start.  A few months later, word got around within NAFSA and in August, 2007 I was approached by Jim Gehlhar, then Chair of NAFSA’s Education Abroad Knowledge Community Network, to lead a Task Force on Environmental Sustainability in Education Abroad.   After forming a committee and a lot of back-and-forth on Google Docs, the report was submitted in April of 2008 and offered recommendations within the following areas:

  • Organization: Establish standing committees and processes to keep environmental sustainability on the radar.
  • Networking: Engage with members, media, and other organizations around this topic.
  • Conferences: Support sustainability-related practices, themes, sessions, and workshops.
  • Website: Create on-line resources and how-to guides.
  • Standards: Develop sustainability “best practices” for education abroad professionals.

This last topic of Standards caught the attention of The Forum on Education Abroad, which is recognized by the US Dept. of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission as the official Standards Development Organization (SDO) for education abroad.  Michael Steinberg, Chair of The Forum’s Standards Development Committee, approached me in March of 2008 to review their Standards of Good Practice and Code of Ethics documents and chair a subcommittee to suggest revisions through the lens of environmental and social responsibility.  After more Google Doccing, draft revisions and resources were submitted in October, 2008 and are currently open for Public Comment before being incorporated in the Spring of 2011.

The main goals of the new standards are to support education abroad organizations to minimize their negative impacts on the environment and host culture and to contribute positively to the welfare of the local society and economy.  The four new proposed standards are:

  • Program Design and Management: Consider the safety and welfare of the staff, community, and local environment in the design, management, and termination of programs.
  • Curriculum and Student Learning: Foster faculty, staff and student awareness of the impact of the program and its students on the natural and social environment.
  • Staff Training and Office Management: Create and maintain policies and relationships that support environmentally responsible office and on-site management.
  • Promotion: Minimize resource use and waste in materials, event management, and travel.

There are additional \”sub-standards\” (definitely not the right word to use in this context) and a growing list of resources that are available in the draft revisions, which will be incorporated into a \”Toolbox\” on The Forum site in the spring.

And there\’s more.  We now have Regional Reps within NAFSA’s Sustainability SIG, the theme of the 2011 National NAFSA Conference is “Innovation and Sustainability in International Education” and SDSU will host an International Conference on Study Abroad, Service-Learning, and Sustainability in May, 2011.  And of course, there’s also this cool new blog on the topic!  While the work has often been slow and bureaucratic, it has also been very satisfying to collaborate with others to raise awareness and help the field of education abroad become more environmentally and socially responsible.  Where would you like to see this go in the coming years?