When it comes to sustainability at Central Michigan University, two fired-up students have lit a beacon for progress.
Teresa Homsi and Eric Urbaniak are so focused on the issue that two CMU offices — Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Facilities Management — backed a special initiative called Central Sustainability to support and amplify their efforts.
"Fired up? You just have to look at their videos to see their passion for sustainability is above and beyond," said Jay Kahn, director of CMU Facilities Operations.
Homsi and Urbaniak have been at the helm of Central Sustainability, working to engage students in creating a more sustainable future.
"They've been the leaders. They've gotten out in front of this," said Stan Shingles, CMU interim vice president and chief diversity officer. "This is what they believe in, and they've been great champions."
Created in summer 2020 and staffed by Homsi and Urbaniak, Central Sustainability's mission is to collect information about sustainability on campus, pursue projects and initiatives with partners inside and outside the university, create educational materials, and recognize community efforts. Sustainability means not only green efforts such as waste reduction and recycling, but also environmental justice, equity and social responsibility.
"Sustainability has always been very important to me," Homsi said. "It's good work. That's literally it: There are positive results from the work we're doing."
The students lead walking tours of campus, produce videos and promote them on social media, maintain the Central Sustainability website, and partner with others to spread their message. Every two weeks, they meet with representatives of eight university and student organizations including the Student Government Association, Residence Hall Assembly and the Mary Ellen Brandell Volunteer Center.
In October, they helped present the virtual Central Michigan Climate Solutions Summit, bringing together representatives from CMU, Mount Pleasant and across Michigan. Another major project, the annual intercollegiate competition Campus Race to Zero Waste (formerly Recyclemania), wrapped up March 31.
The students currently are planning CMU's Earth Week, April 18-24, including a leadership panel discussion featuring CMU President Bob Davies and an alumni panel highlighting CMU graduates in sustainability-focused careers.
Starting with the STARS
Homsi and Urbaniak are both in CMU's Honors Program. Urbaniak, from Bay City, Michigan, is a sophomore with a double major in biology and public and nonprofit administration. Homsi, who grew up in Cypress, Texas, expects to graduate in May 2022 with a double major in environmental studies and journalism.
In 2018, Homsi was a freshman reporter covering a climate change event for Central Michigan Life when then-Chief Diversity Officer A.T. Miller asked her to dig deeper: He recruited her to assess CMU for the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System, a tool colleges and universities use to rate and report on sustainability and identify areas for improvement.
In spring 2020, Miller asked the same of Urbaniak after Kahn saw his dedication to a food waste reduction partnership between Facilities Management and the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College.
"I told Eric, 'Look, we're rated silver right now. I want you to go get us gold,'" Kahn said. (Spoiler: It worked. CMU earned its gold STARS rating.)
The students' work on STARS showed CMU would do well to keep up its focus on sustainability.
Now, Homsi said the website shows the difference Central Sustainability is making: "Everything that's listed under initiatives and projects wouldn't be there otherwise."
Shingles said Homsi and Urbaniak's greatest accomplishment — and biggest boost to their future careers — might be the real-world achievement of securing the STARS gold rating.
"Usually," he said, "you have full-time professionals working on that."
He said employers want to hire career-ready graduates who can think critically, solve problems, communicate and collaborate. They want self-starters with global perspective and intercultural fluency.
"Teresa and Eric get to practice those competencies every single day," he said. "They're involved, dedicated. They're what we need when we needed it. If not for them, this wouldn't be."
The sustainable road ahead
The one constant at a university is change. Urbaniak and Homsi soon will graduate and move on. Shingles said Central Sustainability also will evolve into something more than a pilot project between his office and Kahn's.
"It's my hope that it will find a home within our student services structure," he said. "This is important, especially as we face some of the environmental challenges we do today."
He knows new student leadership will emerge to take up the torch: "How do you develop the next Teresa and Eric? Well, Teresa and Eric were freshmen once."
Urbaniak said the sustainability walking tours — which drew 95 socially distanced participants in the fall semester alone — are one way to attract new talent.
"My favorite part of all this has been empowering and educating others," he said. "We're educating people in an exciting way that makes them want to get involved."
Lindsey Gibb, a freshman from Linden, Michigan, majoring in French and psychology, was drawn in about a month ago after a tour.
"I learned about Teresa and Eric's efforts with Central Sustainability and knew that I wanted to learn more about it," she said. "I introduced myself to Teresa, asked for some contact info, and the rest is history."
Gibb now is working on a sustainability comparison between CMU and other Mid-American Conference universities to find environmental ideas that can benefit CMU.
"I plan on either continuing to study psychology or going to nursing school to become a certified nurse midwife," she said. "Though these careers do not specifically deal with sustainability, my efforts with and passion for environmentalism are something that I hope to continue throughout my adult life.
"I am very grateful to be working toward a more sustainable CMU."