By Bella Witherow ’24 (she/her), Staff Writer

“There is a lot of stuff in your email everyday,” Nina Yao ‘21 said, “and there are limits to what you can do.” Yao, a student employee at the Sustainability Office and an Environmental Studies major, was reflecting on the Dining Services survey conducted by the Sustainability Office in 2019. 

Brooke Whitcomb ‘22, a student employee at the Sustainability Office, emphasized the office’s desire for student input on a new survey with her behind-the-scenes view of how to create change based on student need. 

The new survey, which will be released in Fall 2020, directly connects to Davidson College’s commitment to sustainability. The Davidson Sustainability Office has a number of goals for the school to focus on through actions and research. One of the ways they have committed to their goals is by joining the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. This means the college has committed to carbon neutrality by the year 2050 using a Climate Action Plan. 

However unattainable this goal might seem now, according to Sustainability Office student employee Aislinn Whalen ‘22, the benchmarks set out in the plans make it much more achievable than expected. She said that the Climate Action Plan was first created in 2008 with benchmark goals for 2020, taking this year to review and update the plan as 2050 approaches. 

Last year, the Davidson Sustainability Office sent out a survey to determine students’ opinions on the sustainability of the Vail Commons dining service experience. 

According to Whitcomb, the Dining Services survey included questions about how Dining Services could become more environmentally friendly and how Commons could be more sustainable. As Whitcomb observed, the survey helped the Sustainability Office discover which topics students at Davidson care about. For example, the survey found that many students felt that eliminating trays would have a positive impact on the environment and expressed an interest in increased vegan food options. 

Whitcomb described how the Sustainability Office used student input from the survey to show the Dining Services Director Pinky Varghese how much students cared about these issues. This input then pushed the Sustainability Office to team up with Varghese to make changes to the dining options. This year, the Sustainability Office has chosen to look over the benchmarks set for 2020 in accordance with the original Climate Action Plan

Whitcomb reported, “We had a benchmark to reduce our carbon emissions by 10 percent by 2020,” adding, “We actually reduced our carbon emissions by 17 percent.” According to Whitcomb, the Sustainability Office is now ready to set new benchmarks and create an updated Climate Action Plan to achieve those goals as they advance towards the year 2050. The next benchmark, a 15 percent reduction in carbon emissions, is set for 2030.

In contrast with the first Climate Action Plan, the updated Climate Action Plan will center around student viewpoints. Whalen described the office’s goals for the updated plan.

“The Climate Action Plan that we are hoping to publish in the next year will have more benchmarks laid out, more tangible changes we want to see made around campus, and also, new knowledge as to institutional responsibility and what students want to see,” she said. 

The office recently created a survey to gauge students’ values and rank the importance of certain topics based on the majority of the students’ responses. Whalen described how student employees of the Sustainability Office collaborated to determine tangible changes to campus that they could include on the survey. Specifically, Whalen noted that the survey will ask students’ opinions on these ideas and ask them to rank which they believe are most important. 

Whitcomb described the importance of student input on the Dining Services survey from the year before, saying, “That’s really what helped to push us to make changes, and that’s what we’re hoping to do with this survey too.”

Whalen hopes that the survey is “applicable to more than just an environmental science major who has a lot of background information on these subjects; hopefully, it’s something that most people know about.”

In their work with Director of Sustainability Yancy Fouche, both Whitcomb and Whalen feel that Fouche has made it clear that she really values student input and wants to make changes that reflect what the students truly want. 

The first Climate Action Plan mainly focused on things that the school controlled, such as renovating the heating and cooling systems, as well as installing automatic lights. According to Whitcomb, “This year’s Climate Action Plan is going to be less about reaching data goals in terms of our carbon emissions, and more focused on initiatives. We’re going to try to be more project-based.”

Fouche and the rest of the Sustainability Office have some plans already in the making. According to Whalen, Fouche is working on a transportation plan for the school, as faculty and student transportation is an area where data shows the school can improve in terms of sustainability. The plan is to increase both public transportation in the area and on Davidson’s campus itself. Fouche also wishes to add more charging stations for electric cars and possibly a solar parking lot on campus. 

Whalen mentioned another area on campus set for updates in the new plan is the Dana Science Building. Because the building no longer houses active laboratories for science classes, it also no longer needs as intensive air circulation. Making more sustainable changes to the building’s air conditioning, heating, and cooling is a part of the upcoming plans. 

Whitcomb underscored the Sustainability Office’s purpose in releasing its new survey. “We don’t want to do something unless our community is behind us, and we want to see where our community is,” she said.