Where do we go from here?

“I chose UTM because of its environmental image,” says Rahul Mehta, a June 2012 UTM graduate. Mehta, an earth sciences major, spent much of his undergraduate volunteering with the Green Team and the now-defunct Environmental Affairs Office. Even before enrolling as an undergraduate, Mehta visited the campus for stewardship events hosted by UTM’s Environmental Affairs Office. In fact, back in 2004, UTM was the second university in Ontario and the third in all of Canada to hire a sustainabilitay coordinator. Back then, the concept of green buildings was still young, the green movement had barely begun, and An Inconvenient Truth had yet to be released. It was, in the words of our former environmental affairs officer and sustainability coordinator, a “niche concept”.

The position of environmental affairs officer has only ever been held by one person at UTM: Aubrey Iwaniw. In a way, the position was created for Iwaniw after she graduated in June 2004 with a specialist in environmental management. In her undergraduate years, Iwaniw volunteered with other students on environmental committees and then began taking organizational roles. In 2003, she led UTM volunteers at a Suzuki Foundation event to discuss climate change. In the same year, she also became the president of UTM’s Erindale Environmental Association. In 2004, the Women’s Centre awarded Iwaniw the Woman of the Year title. I could keep going, but you get the picture.

Towards her graduation, Iwaniw approached UTM’s administration with a request. Her work was still unfinished and she wanted to pursue the same environmental leadership projects she had worked on as an undergraduate. So the university hired its first-ever sustainability coordinator under a contract. Later, the position was renamed to “environmental affairs officer” and Iwaniw was hired full-time.

As sustainability coordinator and environmental affairs officer, Iwaniw transitioned from compost education projects to waste management projects to construction talks. Again, you get the picture. The position of environmental affairs officer enabled Iwaniw to sit as an impartial third party at meetings on UTM construction. Between the party that wanted to build and the party that wanted to stay green, the EAO was the party that wanted to build green and plan green. As part of the Naturalization Committee, the Environmental Affairs Office asked questions like “Are there native species here?”, “What’s the status on these green roots?”, and “How much of this construction fiber is recyclable?” The results of those questions are most evident in newer campus structures like the Instructional Centre.

Finally, the Environmental Affairs Office transitioned into student-led projects. The Green Team, with its various Work-Study positions, was born.

The Green Team gave students the opportunity to follow preset projects created by Aubrey and others working with her office. But it also gave students the opportunity to build their own projects for the year.

Aubrey helped prepare students for the positions as well, says Mehta. “She would orient them, give them leadership training, take them step by step through the year, so it was almost like they were going through a program.” This is even more valuable than it seems. Mehta explained that outside of university, recent graduate environmental management positions are hard to come by. “There’s no such thing as a cheap environmental management position,” he says.

In 2008, professor Nicholas Collins of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology nominated Iwaniw for the Joan E. Foley Quality of Student Experience Award. In his letter to the Foley Committee, Collins referred to Iwaniw as a role model to students. “She is easily an identifiable example of what they could aspire to be,” he wrote. “I think that the most important contribution of the Green Team is the kind of personal development it facilitates.”

When I asked Iwaniw if she saw herself as a role model to students, she said it was difficult to accept such high praise. She did say, though, that she saw herself as more of a guide for those students interested in and pursuing environmental management projects such as those run by the Green Team.

But Iwaniw also talked about personal development in a more practical sense. When I asked her what she thought was her biggest achievement at UTM, Iwaniw said it was the U-Pass.

While the accomplishment of having so many students switch to public transit is great in itself, Iwaniw specifically mentioned the students who had never taken public transit before enrolling at UTM. “Lots of students take public transit for the first time when they get the U-Pass,” she says. The learning and habitual aspect of this goes beyond their university years. Having a U-Pass teaches students to take the bus because it’s a more affordable option, but when they graduate many students who have become comfortable with public transit will continue to opt for public transit over cars.

On the subject of looking forward, Iwaniw said she was a little nervous about what would become of student-led environmental management projects without the “institutionalized memory” (as she puts it) that she brought to the discussion, but she wanted to remind students to stay engaged in her absence.

“Students have a lot of power in their ideas and decisions,” she says. “They need to speak out when they want to and make things messy when necessary.”

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