Meet Tristan Sewell, Whitman’s New Sustainability Coordinator

While Whitman students have a reputation for being environmentally forward thinking, there has never been a permanent staff member to harness that passion on a wider scale in terms of school policy and plans for the future. New Sustainability Coordinator Tristan Sewell, who arrived on campus on Monday, July 1, is hoping to end the discrepancy between student activism and administrative action.The position represents a huge success for ASWC  and student advocacy, as well as the college’s attempt catch up to the sustainability efforts of our peer institutions. Sewell will coordinate the sustainability projects of everyday life at Whitman, including recycling and waste management, as well as begin to devise a sustainability plan that will guide campus sustainability into 2050, and even 2100. He hopes to work closely with students and help ambitious student groups committed to the green movement realize their goals.

Sewell grew up in Poulsbo, Wash. and graduated from Western Washington University with a degree in environmental policy. Sewell then attended graduate school through the Oregon Leadership and Sustainability Program. He joins Whitman immediately following his graduate program. We caught up with Sewell as he prepares to take on his position and bridge the gap between students and administration once the school year is under way.  

Pioneer: What has it been like getting acquainted with Whitman?

Tristan Sewell: I mean, overwhelming maybe. This job is boundless; there’s potential to work with more or less everyone on campus in some way. So it’s been pretty consistent. My schedule’s pretty full in terms of meeting people. But I have an interest in campus sustainability because I find college campuses are kind of on the forefront of society in a lot of ways. They’re a really unique opportunity and they aren’t businesses that are profit driven.

Pio: What will your relationship with students be like?

TS: I want to have a good relationship with the students because, first of all, this position was created by students, more or less. That kind of indicates the big picture here; Whitman’s a small college. It’s not a research institution like some of the large state schools where that’s a huge portion of what they do. And so the fact is, we can look at the students as being more or less the only reason any of us are here. So I think we need to keep that in mind, and that drives how I approach this; I think I want to guide students to doing things.

Pio: There have been student interns in the past. Do you expect to work closely with a few students in this manner?

TS: I would definitely like to. That’s in development right now. I know there’s a lot of motivation and energy towards sustainability related topics, but I think that sometimes it seems like people don’t know where to put that energy. And I think that my job is to kind of harness that energy, temper those passions a little bit into something that’s useable and kind of just guide students. The internships are also a way to get students involved and develop ownership. I think that the ownership of campus is really important, and then that bleeds into ownership of our community here in Walla Walla and the county.

Pio: What have your first steps as a sustainability coordinator been?

TS: Recycling has been a big one. I’ve been handed management of the recycling center, so I’ve been trying to come up with ways that can improve our waste stream and decrease contamination levels, increase collection of recyclables, and also make [recycling] easier in the long run …. It’s going to be a long process that’s not gonna happen anytime soon; its going to take a lot of work. The Sustainability Advisory Committee, which I will chair come September — we are considering rearranging it, changing how it works, or how people [get] on the committee. Trying mostly to encourage attendance, that’s one of the big problems there. And then consistency of that and being able to turn out good recommendations to the president, because that is what ultimately goes on there.

Pio: In your opinion, how sustainable, or environmentally friendly, is Whitman currently?

TS: You know, this position is new, and so that in itself indicates being a little behind. Most schools got sustainability coordinators, among our peers and our neighbors, [who are] what I’ve been comparing us to, around 2008 or 2009. And then climate action plans have been two to three years to follow that usually. Some schools have been even earlier on in the sustainability coordinator front, so like 2005 or 2006. I’d say at least in that front we’re a little behind. In terms of our greenhouse inventories progress, that’s also behind. It’s been done for the past few years, but nothing has been done with it, which is because we have no climate action plan, so there’s been a real flat line with our greenhouse gas emissions. They’re pretty much the same year to year. That doesn’t indicate progress is probably the best way to say that.

Pio: Do you foresee major changes in school policy?

TS: It’s hard to say at this point. What I would like to see is a climate action plan that’s committed to climate neutrality on a reasonable schedule. I do feel that many schools put themselves on unreasonable schedules and I’d rather see something practical. I think the Sustainability Advisory Committee will change; it remains to be seen. A lot of this is just remains ‘to be seen’ type of stuff. A lot of schools, even the more sustainable schools, don’t really have that stuff deep rooted in their policy and their official rules. It’s kind of voluntary behavior. I would prefer to have a deeply rooted set of expectations.

Pio: What are your and Whitman’s long-term goals for sustainability? How can Whitman prove that its environmentally friendly image is not just for show?

TS: Definitely a climate action plan is on my radar as a very high priority, and then making good on that plan and following through with the necessary steps. Reducing our greenhouse gas emissions can be challenging. I don’t want to rely entirely on offsets, but at some point we will have to probably do offsets. I would like to see more student ownership of projects, and a bigger push by students for basically anything and everything. Definitely reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and creating a campus that is prepared for 2050 and 2100 and is compatible with the world that you and I will inherit. So if this is the student’s college and we are here and nothing is happening at this college to better the tomorrow for those students, then that’s a problem. And that’s an urgent message; the [college] says one thing and is doing another, which is a lot of what’s going on here as well. I think long term we want to unify our goals and our message to provide that best future for students of today and next year, and last year as well.

For more information on the New Sustainability Coordinator position, read more here.

Sustainability Coordinator Position Approved (Feb 21st, 2013)

ASWC Advocates for Sustainability Position (Nov. 8th, 2012)




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