Visit Modern Campus

Rethinking Student Engagement in an Atomized World: Sustainability Practices as a Means for Building Community

We live in an individualistic society, so it’s important for higher education institutions to foster a sense of community among their students by giving the opportunities to connect.

How do we prepare college students to navigate a world that is more individualistic than ever? In the United States, young adults must navigate post-COVID social fragmentation and an economic system that breeds competition and self-interest. This landscape bears a stark contrast to the sense of community fostered in higher education, particularly on walkable, residential college campuses. Student engagement can be a major leverage point in fostering skills and mindsets that counteract the hyper-individualistic nature of postgrad life. The every-man-for-himself attitude that prevails in the United States is unsustainable both psychologically and ecologically. Not only are people in the United States reporting unprecedented levels of loneliness, but our consumer patterns are contributing to the destruction of the planet. How might we reimagine student engagement through the lens of sustainable living?

This article focuses on the social and behavioral elements of student engagement, referring to education scholars Linda Leach and Nick Zepke’s definition of engagement as “active citizenship, peer relationship-building, and participation in democratic processes.” Student engagement in this sense (usually taking shape in clubs, sports teams, music groups, or campus activism) is often valued for its benefits to individual learning and personal growth. What if, instead of focusing on individual benefits, we imagine student engagement as a way to cocreate alternative ways of living, strengthening practices like getting to know your neighbors and sharing resources? This type of engagement chips away at social isolation and reinforces behaviors that we will all need to adapt to a changing climate.

While extracurriculars and clubs are valuable experiences, limiting our understanding of student engagement to add-on activities creates an opt-in model for engagement. If we understand student engagement as a means for strengthening relationships to share resources, it builds engagement into all students’ lives. This may be especially important for today’s college students, who come up against generational-specific barriers to engagement, such as mental health struggles and financial distress. Embedding sustainability practices into life on campus also counteracts the siloed category of climate activism, which not everyone is drawn to or identifies with.

While college campuses are sites for community-building, the campus environment can in many ways mirror our society’s individualistic consumerism, unintentionally breeding unsustainable mindsets. A major part of living sustainably is learning to decenter our convenience. This way of thinking is counter to most college campus designs, with services like meal plans and shuttle buses that cater directly to the students’ needs. Underexplored are opportunities to intentionally decenter student convenience to get them to engage with the people around them.

Best Practices for Engaging Students via Sustainable Practices

Living sustainably and engaging in a community are deeply intertwined. Establishing an incentive structure and cultural norms that decenter student convenience can, in many cases, create more possibilities for student engagement. The following practices are some ways sustainable habits can become opportunities for engagement and vice versa.

1. Creating opportunities for students to cook together

It may sound trite, but fostering intentionality about food creation and production is an incredibly powerful tool to both mitigate climate change and build community. Minimizing food waste and shortening the chain of production is one of the most effective ways below the systems level that we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is a reason the climate literacy organization Probable Futures often ends presentations with the motto “Keep calm, and learn to cook.” Centering food creation for small group events instead of catering is a way to cut down on food waste, transportation and packaging, and to share in a common activity with the potential to incorporate people’s cultures and personal backgrounds.

2. Supporting and promoting resource-sharing on campus

Some campuses have beginning-of-semester sales of past students’ donated items; the institution should supporte and scale these kinds of events. In addition, residential life should be structured, so these kinds of exchanges happen more informally and automatically. Resource-sharing and community-building within dorms or living communities can be a powerful two-way process. Universities should discourage students and their families from buying non-necessities in the often culturally mandated shopping haul at the beginning of each year. Facilitating relationships among people living together with the purpose of contracting resources would both minimize waste and encourage relationship-building among people who may not otherwise get to know each other. We must challenge the idea that everyone needs their own jug of laundry detergent, their own vacuum cleaner or their own toolkit.

3. Interrogating learning goals related to innovation and invention

On a more theoretical level, a lot of language in higher education reflects individualistic values, particularly the United States’ infatuation with novelty and creation for its own sake. While college should be a time for experimentation and creation, we must challenge unsustainable norms around newness as inherently good and start valuing maintenance and longevity of student projects. Having student affairs invest in alumni engagement is one way to prevent the unnecessary duplication of efforts. For example, instead of launching new sustainability initiatives each year, universities could focus on enhancing and expanding existing programs, keeping past actors involved to ensure the programs’ long-term impact.

The four-year college experience is often held up as a way to prepare students for their independent adult lives. We must reimagine student engagement to prepare today’s students to both navigate and transform the atomized social world that awaits them.