First-years become leaders in going green

New Sustainability Leadership pre-orientation trip started this year


Sam Bramlett

They volunteer. They hike. And now, first-year students are going green.

Sustainability Leadership, a new pre-orientation trip this year, focused on changing the way students think about the environment and their ability to lead others.

Director of Sustainability Kim Cowgill and Dean of Sophomores Megan Hobbs worked together to create the program.

“We wanted folks to understand sustainability and leadership can both be broadly interpreted,” Cowgill said. “I was concerned that students understood that sustainability was bigger than just recycling.”

The Leading Edge Pre-Orientation Program takes place the week before first-year student orientation. After choosing a particular track, students take part in events to help them ease into college life and develop skills while making friends.

True to the cause of inspiring leadership, almost all events are organized by student leaders. They facilitate discussions about leadership and sustainability throughout the week and set up games to help each of their group’s bond.

“There were two trip advisors, but every activity we did was done by the four group leaders,” Philip Aiken, ‘17, said. “They wanted us to be the ones leading to keep positive energy up and the group focused.”

During their first day on campus, first-years sat down with President Kenneth Ruscio and Dean of Students Sidney Evans to discuss leadership and how it meant more than just being in charge. Students in the program then spent the first portion of the week developing as a group.

Students split up, with one trip to Roanoke and one to Charlottesville.

In Roanoke, they witnessed downtown revitalization first-hand, meeting with Real Estate Developer Bill Chapman and Preservationist Glen Gilmer during their visit.

“We got a lot of feedback from students about meeting with the real estate developer,” Aiken said. “Several students had said they were turned off by the whole tree hugger thing but hearing from the developer was a really good opportunity for them to see how it translates into the corporate world and that it’s something to be mindful of even if it’s not really a key part of their career. ”

While in Charlottesville, the group was given a tour of the University of Virginia Institute for Environmental Negotiation, a consulting group and school for improving the sustainability of businesses. Sustainability Leadership also stopped in Staunton along the way to visit the Secure Futures Solar Panel Company.

“I wanted them to know that there are all kinds of ways they can get involved, from business and urban development to farming and agriculture,” Cowgill said. “You can make money working in sustainability, it’s not just like, ‘businesses are bad and the environment is good,’ it’s ‘we can all work together,’ it’s not exclusive.”

Students in the program said that while they thoroughly enjoyed the time they spent together and that their leaders made them feel at home, some felt the program could improve next year by allowing more hands-on leadership roles.

“Each day we had a debrief where we just went over what happened and what we felt about leadership,” Katherine Cheng, ‘19, said. “It got kind of repetitive. They could have involved the students a bit more and there was a lot of talking that didn’t involve the students as much as I hoped, like putting us in leadership roles.”