Smart and Sustainable Campuses Conference – Student Summit

~ By Jennifer Dunn, Talia Schmitt, and Gracia Luoma-Overstreet

Members of the William & Mary Eco-Schools Leadership Initiative (ESLI) attended the Smart and Sustainable Campuses Conference-Student Summit held in College Park, Maryland and co-hosted by the American University Office of Sustainability and the University of Maryland Office of Sustainability. ESLI members had the opportunity to present our work on sustainability at W&M and in Williamsburg, learn from others’ presentations about their sustainability projects at their respective campuses, and gain valuable insight about best practices in sustainability.

The opening plenary speaker of the conference was Mr. Preston Mitchum, an impressive young lawyer and adjunct professor at Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies who works to advance the reproductive and sexual rights of women and girls. He is extremely focused on social justice issues, and reminded the conference that sustainability extends beyond just environmental issues and must also encompass social justice issues in order to create a society that will be happy and healthy. While the ESLI members agreed that they desired more discussion about environmental justice within social justice, all felt that it was inspiring to hear Mr. Mitchum’s call to action on social justice issues in order to make the world a better place.

ESLI members presented our work on sustainability through environmental education to attendees of our workshop, explaining the importance of environmental education and how our work benefits both our volunteers and the students we teach. We demonstrated one of lessons about adaptations by teaching and playing a game called Adapt Like a Cat with workshop attendees and they thoroughly enjoyed the game and our teaching style. We also had an open discussion about environmental education experiences and shared ideas about possible lesson plans for the future.

The workshops later in the day that ESLI members attended were very insightful about other universities’ sustainability initiatives, prompting thoughts about how we could help make W&M more sustainable using other presenters’ methods. One presenter from Southern Connecticut State University shared how she and her team were able to negotiate with the Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts on their campus to allow students to bring their own reusable mug to reduce waste from disposable drinking cups, something that W&M students wish we could do but have been told that we cannot. This campus’ efforts proved to ESLI members that this goal could be accomplished and provided insight on possible ways in which to do it. A student intern at University of Maryland’s Sustainability Office presented how UMD educated all freshman students about sustainability in a fun and informative way during their freshman year classes, prompting thoughts on how we could help support the Office of Sustainability and SEAC’s efforts to be included in freshman orientation seminars to educate students about how to live sustainably on campus and be aware of their impact on the earth. A teacher at Virginia Tech held a workshop about the philosophical aspects of sustainability and best practices for communicating sustainability in a way that is informative and convincing. This presentation was striking because it reminded attendees to think from the point of view of others, rather than from the environmentalist point of view, something that I believe all advocates for sustainability are sometimes guilty of.

The second plenary speaker was Ms. Brenda Pulley, Senior Vice President for Recycling at Keep America Beautiful. She shared her career path and the attitudes and methods that Keep America Beautiful have been using in order to successfully convince the American public that recycling is important and essential to maintaining a healthy ecosystem and a sound economy. Ms. Pulley was very encouraging to all attendees to continue to work on sustainability issues, providing a success story amid all the negative current events related to the state of the environment.

In conclusion, this conference was an excellent opportunity to discuss sustainability with peers coming from different perspectives and facing different challenges on their own campuses because of the open environment of the conference. ESLI members were able to discuss and share contact information with many of the conference attendees, and we hope to be able to broaden our network and W&M network of resources, examples, and ideas in order to make W&M a more sustainable campus for future members of the Tribe.

ESLI members having fun at SSCC 2017 From left to right: Gracia Luoma-Overstreet, Talia Schmitt, Jennifer Dunn

ESLI members having fun at SSCC 2017
From left to right: Gracia Luoma-Overstreet, Talia Schmitt, Jennifer Dunn

May 10, 2017

Got Some Lead, but We Ain’t Dead: Community and Innovation in Flint, Michigan

~ By Jennifer Ross

Recently I had the opportunity to attend the American Studies Association annual conference in Denver, Colorado. This year’s theme was “Home/Not Home: Centering American Studies Where We Are”….so there was no way I could not write about what was going on in my hometown of Flint, Michigan.

Skyline of Flint, Michigan. Personal photograph.

Skyline of Flint, Michigan. Personal photograph.

In my paper, “We Still Call it Home: Complicating the Flint Water Crisis,” I focused on providing a different narrative of the Flint Water Crisis, one that was much more full, complex, and multi-faceted than the accounts provided by the media. I twined together our history of crises (deindustrialization, state and municipal recessions, pollution, arson) with our responses to them. Because of these crises, Flint has fashioned itself into a hub of innovation:

  • Individuals have been urban gardening since I was a child. Now urban gardens cover entire city blocks.
  • The Flint Farmers Market offers free vendor booths to youth gardening programs and both allows fresh fruits and vegetables to be bought with food stamps and doubles the amount of produce that can be bought per dollar.
  • At the height of the arson spree, neighbors fought fires with garden hoses to supplement the skeletal fire crews the city could afford.
  • Community organizations and the University of Michigan—Flint rehab houses for individual, community, and educational uses. One such example includes the university’s Urban Alternatives House, which is Platinum LEED certified and explores environmentally sustainable construction and operation strategies.
  • Phytoremediation, a process utilizing trees to draw toxins out of contaminated soil, is underway in Chevy in the Hole, one of the most polluted ex-industrial sites in the city.

Specifically regarding the Flint Water Crisis, it was Flint residents, charities, and churches who first began organizing the massive water collectio and distribution efforts that allowed people to pick up cases of bottled water. Often a semi trailer full of water would pull up to one of these organizations, a call for volunteers would go out over the radio, and people would flock to help unload and stack the water. It was also Flint residents who distributed water door to door when the National Guard deemed several neighborhoods too dangerous to enter. Additionally, people throughout the city have responded with creative ways of dealing with the enormous numbers of empty water bottles, particularly through art and protest. One local artist traces children’s silhouettes, fills the outline with water bottles, and lights the plastic with LEDs to highlight the importance of water to the human body. The University of Michigan—Flint Early Childhood Development Center turned empty bottles into hanging chandeliers painted by the two- and three-year olds. The chandeliers have been hanging in the Flint Farmer’s Market and were auctioned off for almost $3,000. Finally, UM-Flint dance instructors choreographed a stunning display of what the water crisis has meant for adults with mental illness and developmental disabilities.

Water bottle chandeliers. Personal photograph.

Water bottle chandeliers. Personal photograph.

UM-Flint Spring Dance Finale. Courtesy Mlive.

UM-Flint Spring Dance Finale. Courtesy Mlive.

Attending this conference was a tremendous experience. For as much as Flint has been in the news, and for as egregious an affront to democracy and human rights the Water Crisis is, very few people are actually talking about it outside of the city, the state, and some activist circles. Thousands of scholars attended this conference, but mine was the only paper on the Flint Water Crisis.

It left me puzzled.

And it left me frustrated.

The Flint Water Crisis touches on issues which, at some point, communities across the United States and the country as a body must confront. Racist environmental justice policies continue to be implemented and carried out. The Rust Belt continues to decay and the soil and water contamination left by exiting corporations remains a hazard to the health and well-being of the residents both nearby and downstream. Neoliberal and austerity politics continue to ascend and become more normalized. And civil and human rights issues, including basic rights and necessities such as shelter, food, and access to clean drinking water continue to come under siege as local, state, and federal budgets are stripped of funding for infrastructural improvements and upkeep, environmental protection, and social safety nets. Perhaps most worrisome of all is the lack of productive and meaningful social criticism—quite simply, the absence of outrage—over the Flint Water Crisis.

What does this tell us about who deserves fundamental human rights, let alone civil rights? And how can we decry the human rights violations of regimes abroad when we are enacting violence against an entire population ourselves?

What does this tell us about our priorities as a country? And how can we, as a country, comport ourselves as the bringers of freedom, democracy, and wealth, when we invalidate local, elected governments through the implementation of “Emergency Managers,” and leave men, women, and children to suffer from the poisonous effects of lead?

And what does this tell us about the future? And how are we–how are you–going to respond?

About the Author 

Jennifer Ross received dual bachelor degrees in Honors English and History, as well as her Masters in English, at the University of Michigan-Flint. She is currently a second-year PhD student in the American Studies Program at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Jennifer’s research interests include the structure and function of state power, neoliberalism, disaster literature, and American empire. Her upcoming dissertation will investigate how the fiction of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina served to first build and then critique the nationalist narratives of the counter-terror state.

May 10, 2017

Sustainable Holiday Initiative

~By Sam Laveson, Class of 2020

The holiday season is always one of my favorite parts of the year. As a child who grew up under a Jewish and a Christian parent, I’ve had the great pleasure of being able to celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah, amidst bundles of foods, gifts, games, traditions, and love. Unfortunately, while it is the most wonderful time of the year, it is also the most wasteful time of the year. According to according to

~Americans throw away 25% more trash during the Thanksgiving to New Year’s holiday period than any other time of the year. The extra waste amounts to 25 million tons of garbage, or about 1 million extra tons per week!
~If every family reused just two feet of holiday ribbon, the 38,000 miles of ribbon saved could tie a bow around the entire planet.
~If every American family wrapped just 3 presents in re-used materials, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields.
~The 2.65 billion Christmas cards sold each year in the U.S. could fill a football field 10 stories high. If we each sent one card less, we’d save 50,000 cubic yards of paper.

Upon discovering these unfortunate facts, I became determined to do something, namely the Sustainable Holiday Initiative. Pressed for time, all that I managed to do this year was hand out some fliers with some tips, as well as heavily encourage people to creatively wrap gifts (with newspapers, magazine pages, old T-shirts, old artwork pieces, etc.) and post pictures of them on social media with the hashtag #wmshi. I’ve also been spreading some of my personal favorite tips and suggestions:

~EAT LEFTOVERS! America wastes roughly 40% of its food per year, and a disproportionately large amount is wasted over large holiday feasts.
~MAKE YOUR OWN GIFTS! Why go out and spend a lot of money when you can make your own gifts for other people? You know your recipients better than the stores do!
~BRING YOUR OWN BAGS! Instead of picking up pernicious plastic bags from your holiday purchases, bring your own bags.
SKIP THE RIBBON! Gifts can still look beautiful without it.
~SEND E-CARDS! Just think of all the envelopes and stationery that would be saved.

Although participation has not been that high this year, this was more or less of a trial run to see how the idea would be received. Since most people seem to like it, I intend to expand it next year. Perhaps it would be good to have a competition through the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition to see which college could post the most creatively wrapped gifts. Or maybe expand it to the community in Williamsburg outside of the college. But whatever may end up happening, it’s always a gift to see people thinking conscientiously about their natural environment and resource consumption.

December 31, 2016

Soaking in the Sustainability: Reflections on the 2016 AASHE Student Summit

Picture from AASHE

~By Rachel Merriam-Goldring, Class of 2017

‘The person next to you is going to heal the world,’ said our first speaker. I smiled at the friends I was sharing a table with, knowing he was right.

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the student summit at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE)’s annual conference. While at the summit, I went to panels and talks on the links between art and science, on food waste and student-led compost programs, on southern energy policy, on marketing sustainability, and on the power of science to expose injustice. It was a day jam-packed with learning and warmth.

It was also a day full of many good questions, many of which I’m still mulling over.

What would you surrender to fight climate change?

How do we fight apathy?

Can emotions play a more central role in combatting environmental degradation?

What partners can help us get our message across?

How do we bring about continuity and continued student engagement?

What role does culture play in the transition to renewable energy?

What is climate change a symptom of?

I was initially surprised by how participatory the conference was. In the first panel on the links between art & science, we started by doing an exercise that allowed us visualize connectivity. We each chose a word that represented our homes and natural spaces, and then passed around a ball of string to people whose stories connected with ours. The resulting web was a lovely reminder of the links we often don’t see. In later panels, I quite enjoyed the breakouts, where we had wonderful conversations about to better facilitate participatory decision-making, and how to collaborate with other organizations to make our outreach more effective and intersectional.

Another highlight of the day was hearing  the keynote speech for the larger AASHE conference, given by Marc Edwards, the professor whose research team was integral in exposing the Flint Crisis. He talked about the work he’d done in DC in the early 2000’s to expose lead levels in water supplies, and how that ultimately lead into his research on Flint water supplies that garnered significant national media attention. Although there’s significant criticism of Edwards, most of which rests on the ways in which his role as spokesperson took agency and credit for progress away from the residents and community leaders in Flint, he nevertheless had many useful lessons to impart. As he reminded us, ‘you’re judged by how you treat your most vulnerable.’

Perhaps the most important part of the conference was something more ephemeral and less concrete than a specific speech or panel. Broadly, it was powerful to be surrounded by so many people who are fighting the good fight. I’m constantly wowed by the sheer amount of energy people bring to sustainability efforts. It was revitalizing to spend the day in Baltimore learning from and with people who also hope to heal the world.

November 1, 2016

Thump! A Sound on the Way Out at William & Mary

~By Nick Newberry, Class of 2017


Whether it’s a cardinal on the terrace picnic tables or a Red-tailed Hawk coursing through the trees on your way to class, hopefully you’ve enjoyed the opportunity to observe some of the dozens of bird species visible throughout campus. If you have been around this summer the warblings of bluebirds and numerous nests bustling with newfound life have become part of the background of your campus environment. Although you may not have noticed them as much as the shorter weekend night lines at Wawa, these denizens of campus are indicators of the lively avian community reliant upon campus landscapes. Soon, though, these fervent residents will begin their fall migration to southern latitudes and in their stead a whole new bird community will replace them. Just as William & Mary has a different human community come August it will also have a new bird community. Some such as the Blackpoll Warbler will be traveling from as far away as Western Alaska. For species like these our campus is a critically important resting area as they wing their way as far south as Brazil. Unfortunately, for nearly all migrants their journey is never as romantic as the writings of Rachel Carson and others have described.

“There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds… There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter…” –Rachel Carson

More and more the symbolic and actual beauty of migration is vanishing as the journey becomes a gauntlet of increasingly frightening challenges. Habitat destruction and climate change are rapidly rendering long-honed migration instincts outdated. There are, however, a few lethal pressures on birds that DO NOT require multinational legislation or burdensome economic policies. Bird window strikes are one of those easily fixable problems*. And with estimates of up to 1 billion birds killed per year in the US alone of the approximately 20 billion in all of the country, we can no longer afford to continue on this trajectory. Sometimes saving birds leaves us in difficult situations such as when leaving a productive wetland intact means a housing community cannot be built. In comparison, the issue of preventing birds from hitting windows is relatively simple. Within the past couple of years easily applicable films have been developed to reduce reflections from windows to a point where birds no longer see the appealing habitat “behind” the window and therefore no longer strike the window. These films may be applied to any window and the film is easy to install. The best part? Every time a window is outfitted with this film, birds’ lives are saved. The effect is that straightforward, that instantaneous and that simple.

The top window has been treated while the bottom has not. Notice the difference in the reflections.

The top window has been treated while the bottom has not. Notice the difference in the reflections.

This spring a Green Fee awarded to Professor Dan Cristol and students Ohad Paris (Graduate program ’17) and Megan Mass (Undergraduate ’18) funded the application of treatments to windows in the Swem courtyard, on the southwestern side of the library building. For the past three years students have been monitoring birds killed at windows on campus and this was the most lethal area killing an estimated 25-30 birds per year. Taken over the life of the now 50-year-old building, that combines for a saddening number of needlessly taken lives. As you walk to Swem from the direction of Ukrop Way take a look at the windows surrounding the courtyard, in all likelihood you won’t notice any difference, at least right away, and that is the beauty of the project. The birds notice it, we don’t and everyone goes on with their lives.

What you can do

Join me and movements across the country in doing what you can to prevent window strikes. A list of links with more information are at the bottom of this post. If YOU would like to help on campus email the Bird Club of William and Mary. Right now we are gathering data to figure out where the next windows we should treat are.

On a side note, if you do look carefully you will notice that some of the windows are not as reflective. Right now two windows have been treated, but keep an eye out for the installation of the last five as migration, and bird collision frequency, increase come the end of August.

*An in-depth look

Birds and windows have obviously not evolved in tandem. The time required for birds to adapt to challenges posed by windows is, unfortunately, orders of magnitudes longer than the 150 years or so that glass windows have been in widespread use. When birds fly around they are typically looking for one of three things: water, food or shelter from predators and the weather. Often this means they are looking for trees and bushes. There are three major problems when this desirable habitat comes in close contact with structures that have windows. The first issue is that birds cannot readily discern the difference between a reflection of a tree and the sight of a real tree. The second problem is that birds don’t see like humans do; their eyes are positioned on the side of their heads as opposed to the forward facing eyes of humans. This means they are less likely to be able to detect an obstruction directly in front of them. Finally, more than 90% of the birds that hit windows and succumb to the associated severe brain trauma are migrants not familiar with the local windows. In contrast, local birds very rarely fall victim to windows. This means that fall and spring, when millions of birds migrate, are far and away the most dangerous and lethal times of year on the William and Mary campus and around the world.

Below are some pictures and commentary of a few of the species that have been found under windows around campus. 

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Black-throated Blue Warblers breed throughout the northeast and are commonly found migrants in May and September campus

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In the late winter large flocks of more than 200 Cedar Waxwings eat every single berry on campus

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Common Yellowthroats are another migrant seen in brushy areas on campus. They make their home across North America along waterways and in wetlands

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Rusty Blackbirds are a globally threatened species that makes its winter home on campus where it subsides on the crushed acorns in front of Swem and on Ukrop Dr.

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Song Sparrows nest in the bushes across campus and are often the first to sing in the spring

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Gray Catbirds make their home in berry thickets where you may have caught glimpses of them making their namesake mewing call while picking berries

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Northern Parulas are one of the 28 or so species of warblers that pass through campus in the spring and fall every year on migration

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The closest Painted Buntings can reliably be found to campus is in South Carolina, but they sometimes stray to Virginia

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The classy Black-and-White Warbler is one of the first warblers to arrive in the spring and last to leave in the fall. One even spent the winter in Colonial Williamsburg in 2014!


  • The documentary The Messenger, available on Netflix

August 19, 2016

Where are all the cockroach activists? Lindsay Garcia at the Cultural Studies Association Annual Conference.


Schuylkill River, Philadelphia, PA at sunset

A major part of being a graduate student is getting your work out into the world and networking with other like-minded scholars at academic conferences. As an emerging scholar, who focuses largely on nonhuman animals and environmental issues in American culture, the Cultural Studies Association (CSA) Annual Conference was a great fit for me. This year, the conference took place at Villanova University in Villanova, Pennsylvania; however, the conference hotel was in downtown Philadelphia, a 40-minute drive away, creating an initial environmental dilemma by increasing travel time and fuel consumption for attendees as well as making my attendance at the majority of events challenging. Because of this distance, however, my dog Winslow, who was my co-pilot on this environmental adventure, and I got some great walks in along the Schuylkill River, a river with a history of pollution due to the oil and coal industries dating back to the mid-nineteenth century.



The theme of this year’s conference was “Policing Crises Now,” a pertinent topic due to the re-vamped political unrest around race and LGBTQI issues as well as the increasing public awareness of climate change and other real, material environmental concerns. The panels that I participated in and attended were hosted by the Environment, Space, and Place Working Group. I joined this working group, which consists of a selection of specialized scholars who research cultural artifacts from an eco-critical perspective, after last year’s CSA conference in Riverside, California, where I presented a paper called “Can Ferguson teach Environmental Justice Advocates?,” the travel of which was also funded by the Committee on Sustainability. I chaired a panel called Documenting the Crisis II, which paired Allyse Knox, a graduate student in Women and Gender Studies from Stony Brook University, with Allison Bleckner, a graduate student in Arabic Literature from Harvard University. Knox read the films Interstellar and Beasts of the Southern Wild against each other in the search for depictions of the climate crisis from the perspective of grief and mourning. Bleckner, on the other hand, presented on Raja Shehadeh’s text Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape as a way to present a work of textual art that records the environmental irresponsibility of Israel.

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Catherine Chalmers, Safari, 2008 (video still)

My own presentation entitled “Why is no one clamoring to save the cockroaches?” took place during the Material Creatures panel alongside Daniel Lanza Rivers, a recent PhD from Claremont Graduate University who looked at the extinction of the California grizzly bear within a queer ecology framework; Anna Guasco, a recent graduate of Carleton College who rejected the notion that ecotourism regarding the American grey whale heals traumatic historical interspecies encounters through touch; and Michael McGlynn, Associate Professor of Foreign Languages and Literatures from National Taiwan University who presented on the ecological formal elements of Spanish love poetry. My paper questioned why no animal activists think about animals that are considered “pests,” a pest being an animal (human or nonhuman) who is considered “out of place.” I use three examples of performative art that involve the live bodies of animals to highlight their agency and the affects produced by the production of this artwork: Kim Jones’ Rat Piece (1976), which uses rats; Bruce Nauman’s Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage) (2001), which uses mice; and Catherine Chalmers’ Safari (2008) which uses cockroaches. I argue that each of these works are successful in shaping the American cultural imaginary differently and more humanely with regards to pest animal deaths by employing shock, naturalization, and re-wilding tactics respectively. This essay acts as a seed on which my dissertation will grow as I continue to look at the art, activism, and visual culture of the pest in America. I would also like to thank the William & Mary Committee on Sustainability for partially funding my travel to this conference and supporting my research.

Kim Jones, Rat Piece, 1976 (performance documentation)

Kim Jones, Rat Piece, 1976 (performance documentation)

Lindsay Garcia is an artist and third year PhD student in American Studies at the College of William and Mary with a specialization in political art, art history, activism, the built environment, and animal studies. Garcia holds a BFA in Sculpture from Rhode Island School of Design, an MA in Contemporary Art from Sotheby’s Institute of Art, an MFA in Visual Art from SUNY Purchase, and an MA in American Studies from the College of William and Mary.


Lindsay Garcia as Feminist Pest Control Agent. See for more information about that project.

June 15, 2016

The Future of Green Careers

~By Gina Sawaya, Class of 2017

If I had a nickel for every time somebody asked me what I am going to do with my major, I would still be poor, but at least now I have a few ideas. As an Environmental Science major, many people are curious about what that means for my future career. I have wanted a green career for most of my life, but I did not know what that meant until this year. I am in a research lab in the Biology department, but, like a lot of students involved in undergraduate research, I still want information about careers outside the lab. When I found out about the EcoAmbassador program, I saw this position and felt relieved. I could get credit for doing career research? This position has allowed me to do job research not only for myself, but also for any student interested in a “green” career.

A green career can be defined in many ways, and a few sources have attempted to assign certain characteristics to these careers and quantify their impact. First, the Bureau of Labor Statistics explains that these careers can either be “Jobs in businesses that produce goods or provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources,” or “Jobs in which workers’ duties involve making their establishment’s production processes more environmentally friendly or use fewer natural resources” (BLS 2010).

These sustainable activities are restated in a survey from the New Hampshire state government. Their report adds that a green company will offer a green product or service, or uses green processes such as “environmental management” (State of NH, 2011). Next, I found a few podcasts dealing with green careers, and one of the podcasts on a site called Green Biz explains that a green career “[reduces] environmental impact or [promotes] environmental restoration,” or it is a career “that affects, in a positive way, what’s referred to as people, planet, profit” (GreenBiz). A green career is one that helps the employees and customers, ensures decisions are being made with a focus on the environment, and helps the bottom line.


For my project, I interviewed nine professionals with green careers and posted them on the Cohen Career Center’s website. My interviews include two salesmen, an environmental consultant, a handful of directors of sustainability, a local government leader, and a science communicator. If you are interested in pursuing a green career, or just want to learn how to conduct an informational interview, please listen to my podcasts.

Through these interviews, I have learned a great deal about how to achieve a green career, and I want to tell you what I learned about networking. First, get a LinkedIn. Making a profile takes 10 minutes, and I promise it will make your networking so much easier. Then, join groups on LinkedIn with W&M alumni. Once you are in the same group, you can message alumni with jobs that you are interested in. Try to set up a phone call even for 20 minutes, and then ask them how they got to their job. I like to ask questions about skills, their past careers, and what they love and hate about their jobs. Become an expert on these informational interviews, and I promise that you will figure out what you are interested in. Plus, you may get a job offer from these contacts. These interviews were extremely valuable to me, and I hope that by listening to mine and conducting your own interviews you are able to find the green career of your dreams.

May 2, 2016

Why I Care: Renewable Energy

Video by Talia Schmitt, Class of 2018, featuring Talia Schmitt and Anne Davis.

April 30, 2016

Planting Trees in Ecuador

~By Talia Schmitt, Class of 2018 

Over spring break, I joined a group of seven William & Mary students on the college’s Branch Out service trip, TREE. We loaded on to an airplane and headed off to the dry forest in Ecuador to plant some trees. Clarification #1: The dry forest is different than the rainforest. The dry forest is located on the western coast of Ecuador whereas the rainforest circles around to include the eastern region of the country. Unlike the rainforest, known for its constant wet conditions, the dry forest, on the pacific coast, has both a rainy and dry season. When we went, it was the rainy season– green, lush, rainy and roughly 80°F. In the dry season from June to December, the land appears dead with no rain.  This dry season tricks many people who see the forest as “dead” anyway and therefore cut down many of the trees. Now, less than 25% of the dry forest is left, resulting in erosion and mudslides as well as the destruction of one of the most bio-diverse habitats on the planet.

Dedicated to preserving the dry forest, California residents Lucas and Jasper Oshun founded Global Student Embassy (GSE) in 2008. We know the story all too well where a white man comes into another community, finds a problem and tries to fix it, but as I learned more about GSE, I began to see why this organization is different.


Lucas partnered up with Ecuadorian science teacher, Mancho, and the two of them work on a program where students are the core labor and funding that supports this reforestation project. Lucas has set up GSE programs and eco-clubs throughout the U.S. especially in high schools and colleges in California. Mancho started high school eco-clubs in which Ecuadorian students prepare for reforestation throughout the year and then plant trees with American students in our springtime. Some of these Ecuadorian “eco-club” teens are even given the opportunity to visit the United States.

When we arrived in the beaches of San Clemente on the Ecuadorian coast, some of the first faces to greet us were those of Luis, Alvaro, Fiorella, Rolando, Evelyn and Christian—all Ecuadorian students and interns. Country boundaries rapidly faded as we traded a Salsa class for the “Cotton-Eye Joe” dance, exchanged language lessons and compared environmental actions.

Together, we planted over 500 trees in just three days in Bahia, Ecuador. For the first time, I felt the lumpy green skin of the Ceibo tree and ate a bright pink dragon fruit straight off the branch. The mosquitos swarmed and our arms carrying the fifty-pound seedling-boxes ached. There were some near-fainting experiences and the harsh sunlight reminded us that Ecuador is on the equator. Yet the feeling of rich soil in-between my fingers, the Spanish jokes and the look of the farmers after they saw our hard work were all I needed to keep planting.

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On the last days of the trip we left the bioluminescent-watered, pink-sea-shelled Bahia coast, and stayed in the old Andes town of Cuenca. There, I learned about the various groups of indigenous people in Ecuador like the Quechuas who wear two braids, a velvet skirt and dominant the traditional medicine corner of the market.  We explored the enchanted Cajas National Park with “Quinoa” trees the color of a red crepe myrtles and with waters so clean we drank out of them.

On the last days we reflected on the trip: the culture, the nature, the friends. All of the immense beauty humbled me and reminded me of my small size in the immense, dynamic and essential forests of Ecuador.


Check out Talia’s blog here and a video she made below!


March 23, 2016

Native Plant Nursery Saves Biodiversity on Campus

~ By Erin Chapman, Class of 2017

The fall weather felt pleasant as I hiked the trails in Matoaka woods, scrutinizing the leaves at the tops of oak trees through my binoculars and using a field guide to identify tree species. My mission was to find a scarlet oak, Quercus coccinea, and then collect as many of its acorns as I could fit into my bag. I wasn’t hoarding for my winter food supply – I was saving the tree biodiversity on campus.


I work on the Native Plant Nursery project (NPN) through the EcoAmbassador internship. The EcoAmbassador internship is a program operated by the Committee on Sustainability where students can apply to multiple on-campus sustainability internships and receive class credits for their work. I compare this experience to Captain Planet and the Planeteers. EcoAmbassadors are Planeteers and Calandra Lake, the EcoAmbassador coordinator, is Captain Planet.

My project is an initiative to restore declining native plant populations on the William & Mary campus. This is both for educational and conservation purposes. The educational reason is to replace species important to biology and environmental science courses that were lost due to ongoing campus construction and development. The conservation purpose is to support landscape efforts by providing native plants which require less maintenance to thrive compared to non-native plants, and that support native animal populations.  

The targeted species are:

  • Decumaria barbara (climbing hydrangea)
  • Ulmus alata (winged elm)
  • Quercus prinus (chestnut oak)
  • Quercus coccinea (scarlet oak)
  • Quercus stellata (post oak)
  • Quercus marilandica (blackjack oak)
  • Quercus michauxii (swamp chestnut oak)
  • Viburnum nudum (possumhaw)
  • Oxydendrum arboretum (sourwood)

 Field work is essential for this project – especially during the fall season when I was out competing with squirrels for acorns. The seeds and acorns collected are used to grow seedlings during late autumn. It’s the EcoAmbassador’s responsibility to find mature individuals of the targeted species and collect the seeds from campus property. By selecting seeds from trees nearby, rather than from trees of the same species in a different part of their natural range, our seedlings should be adapted to the local climate.

When I finally found a scarlet oak deep in the College Woods, I collected 97 of its acorns, using an acorn identification guide just to be certain. Acorns with holes weren’t selected, because holes indicate invasion by parasitic insect larvae, such as weevils.

I brought my sizable collection to the potting room in the green house where I performed a float test. This test separates the germinated acorns from the insect damaged and non-germinated acorns. All acorns are placed in a container of water for 24 hours. The ones that sink are viable and kept; the ones that float are discarded. All but four acorns passed the float test.

Scarlet oak is in the red oak family, a family comprised of dormant oak species, and therefore needs a cooling period in order to grow. This cooling period would be winter naturally, but in the NPN it is a refrigerator. Acorns from the red oak family are placed in the fridge in a plastic container filled with soaked peat moss for at least three months. It is vitally important to keep acorns (from all oak families) moist as it is imperative to their timely germination.


When I took the acorns out of the fridge a month ago, I was ecstatic to see the cracked acorn shells with green seed coat peeking through. My advisors (Patty Jackson/Greenhouse Manager and Beth Chambers/Herbarium Curator) and I set up two seed flats for our acorns and put them under grow lights. Most of them now have shoots – a few even have leaves! Soon, they will be transferred to their own individual tree pots.

Currently, the NPN has almost 100 tree seedlings growing at the nursery behind the law school. Once these seedlings reach a self-sustaining size where they no longer require protection against predation, they will eventually be landscaped onto campus property and carry the genetics of their ancestors into the future- hopefully, without any need for helping hands. Looking at the sprouts extending from my scarlet oak acorns, I remember Captain Planet’s words, “The power is yours.”

March 9, 2016

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