Spring 2024 Issue:

Think Piece

It’s Time to
Lead the Charge

Higher education can inspire students to take action and address the challenges faced by the world and outlined
in the United Nations Sustainabie Development Goals.

By Diane White Husic, Illustration by James O’Brien, Spring 2024

In 2014, I was invited to write a guest editorial in Liberal Education, a magazine of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) about educating students to be “innovative thinkers, advocates, and activists” who “aren’t content with simply finding a job but are still idealistic enough to want to change the world for the better.” A decade later, my plea for an education system that empowers students to translate their knowledge into action to address 21st-century challenges is still relevant. Since that editorial was published, we have witnessed an amplification of the destructive impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss, and social injustices. We live in an era in which youth experience eco-anxiety and climate grief as they are confronted with an overwhelming array of intertwined environmental and social problems.

The study of the psychological and phys- ical health impacts of anxiety related to ecological crises is a growing field of research, and there is emerging evidence of associations between poor air quality and poor mental health. These new categories of psychological stress likely contribute to the widely acknowledged mental health crisis on college campuses. As millennials and members of the younger generations, Z and Alpha, worry about the immense problems that they are inheriting, they are directing anger and frustration toward baby boomers, whom they blame for the current state of the planet.

Perhaps it is time for faculty and administrators to carefully listen to these younger generations to better understand what they want and need. Our youth have passion and the desire to acquire knowledge and skills that they can use to address complex problems in their communities. A report based on a 2023 survey conducted by Ernst and Young and Junior Achievement concluded that “young people…look to their schools to prioritize sustainability education, update curricula often enough to capture current trends, and utilize hands-on learning methods that focus on skills acquisition as much as knowledge acquisition.” According to a Student Voice survey, conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, 45 percent of high school students considered environmental sustainability in their college enrollment decisions. Eighty-one percent of college students are at least somewhat worried about climate change; thus, an institution’s record on climate action could also be a critical factor in many high schoolers’ final college choices.

So how can we channel the emotions of anxious students toward positive action? Innovative learning opportunities that serve local communities are one possibility. At Moravian, one student worked with the Bethlehem City Council to develop a comprehensive climate action plan that is now being implemented by the mayor (a Moravian alumnus) and his team. Another worked with the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission to better understand regional greenhouse gas emissions, a first step in implementing measurable actions to reduce these pollutants that are warming the planet. Moravian has had two cohorts of Millennium Fellows who join other students from around the world in a semester-long leadership development program and create actionable plans to address one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on campus or in their local communities.

We live in an era in which youth experience eco-anxiety and climate grief as they are confronted with an overwhelming array of intertwined environmental and social problems.

Instilling hope in our students by providing experiences in which they are involved in the solutions to daunting challenges is critical. Besides the above examples, Moravian students have conducted research and done internships at a regional EPA Superfund site—the only such highly polluted site in the country that has undergone a remarkable restoration to a wildlife refuge open to the public. Since 2009, delegations of students and faculty have attended the annual conferences of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and interacted with scientists, policymakers, and activists from more than 190 countries—people who believe that the power of collective action can change the world for the better. Partnerships, be they at the community or global level, are key to achieving a sustainable future.

Institutions should consider incorporating the SDGs and climate change concepts across the curriculum, not just in environmental majors and research. Imagine a general education program that uses the SDGs as a framework, so that students collectively grapple with health, equality, peace, justice, and environmental topics through various disciplinary perspectives. The 17 SDGs align with all the challenges we face—the social and environmental justice issues that our students are concerned about and eager to address.

I started by mentioning an editorial published by AAC&U, an organization “dedicated to advancing the democratic purposes of higher education by promoting equity, innovation, and excellence in liberal education.” As a member institution that has a mission focused on a liberal arts education and preparing individuals for “transformative leadership in a world of change,” don’t we at Moravian owe it to our current and future generations of students to listen to their concerns, provide innovative learning opportunities that lead to action-oriented service and civic engagement, and instill a sense of hope?

The author is a professor of biology and director of the environmental studies and sciences program at Moravian. She is also dean of the university’s Center for Scholarship, Research, and Creative Endeavors. This piece was adapted from her article “Reframing Sustainability Initiatives in Higher Education” (Sustainable Earth, February 14, 2024). 

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