Promoting collaboration and community in a pandemic
Student Sustainability Ambassador Program connects sustainability student leaders to provide support and resources during COVID-19
C/O Bram Naus
The 2020-21 academic year was like none other, given the evolving COVID-19 pandemic and online classes at McMaster University. Despite the challenges, one program that helped students stay connected and build community during lockdown was the Student Sustainability Ambassador Program.
The program launched in October 2020 after discussions between McMaster Hospitality Services and the academic sustainability programs office recognized a need for greater collaboration between sustainability-minded student leaders.
“We noticed that student groups seemed to be running similar events, pursuing similar goals and tackling similar problems as other groups. We scanned campus and found more than 30 clubs focused on sustainability efforts . . . We saw an opportunity to support these groups in having an even bigger impact through collaboration,” explained Abbie Little, the community relations coordinator and experiential learning for the academic sustainability programs office.
The program was implemented and run by hospitality services along with facility services and the McMaster Students Union. It was started with funding support from the McMaster Okanagan Special Charter program.
This funding was awarded in 2020 to SSAP as it focused on improving the health and well-being of the community, specifically by creating new engagement opportunities for students and empowering their leadership.
The SSAP’s mission is to support student leadership experiential learning while promoting personal and professional development in sustainability initiatives. SSAP outlined three objectives to achieve this mission: increase student awareness on academic sustainability, empower students to be leaders in sustainability through active learning and provide support in their projects and plans of action.
Since its launch, SSAP has gained over 115 members in its private Facebook group, which allowed students to learn, collaborate and support each other’s sustainability initiatives.
“Everyone that runs the program, as well on the faculty side, is very passionate and very supportive of everyone . . . It's been great meeting with them even throughout being online all the time,” explained Callum Hales. Hales is a member of this Facebook group and a sustainability minor student currently in SUSTAIN 3S03 working on a solitary bees project.
Crystal Zhang, another member of the SSAP Facebook group and sustainability minor student echoed Hales’ sentiments.
“I'm part of the Facebook group and I really enjoyed [it] because there are so many different initiatives and so much information . . . they always have a way [for students] to get involved and I really like that about the sustainability department and community,” explained Zhang.
“Everyone that runs the program, as well on the faculty side, is very passionate and very supportive of everyone . . . It's been great meeting with them even throughout being online all the time,” explained Callum Hales.
This year, Zhang was a part of a tree planting project in collaboration with local Hamilton organizations and with support from the sustainability department.
“They really helped us out a lot. [They] showed us the whole tree planting process, even without us actually being there,” explained Zhang, who was able to plant over 100 trees on campus with her team.
Hales described SSAP and the sustainability courses in general to be insightful in broadening your perspective.
“It’s a very good way of bringing together a bunch of different disciplines [to see sustainability] from a multi-faceted view instead of like through a single lens,” explained Hales.
The SSAP is also open to all students across all disciplines and Hales believed that the SSAP program could be applied anywhere across campus.
Hales also encouraged all students to take part in sustainability groups. The student plans on incorporating sustainability in his future career because of the positive impact the student projects have had on him.
Zhang explained that sustainability projects have allowed her to develop critical thinking and writing skills.
“We are going through the climate crisis and I feel like what I’ve learned is really critically thinking about the decisions being made by people in power and where our world is going in terms of sustainability right now,” explained Zhang.
SSAP also hosted monthly Coffee and Collaboration Chats where students shared their ongoing ideas and connected each other to useful resources.
“Students in clubs share their plans and resources and have a discussion board [where they] can post about local and global sustainability topics and event opportunities which helps to form a sense of community. We also offer special project funding to individuals or groups looking for financial support to launch their sustainable projects in their own community,” said Little.
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“We have several goals we aim to achieve with the program and one of them is to provide educational workshops on topics that students want to learn more about . . . We heard from students that during the pandemic, they wanted to learn about ways they could be active members of their community from the safety of their homes,” explained Little.
Alongside these chats, SSAP provided educational workshops to help build students’ leadership skills.
One such event was the advocacy letter writing workshop held in February 2021, which was developed in collaboration with McMaster graduate Jamie Stuckless, who is an expert policy consultant, writer and transportation professional.
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The workshop included an overview of how students should structure their letters, what specific factors about the audience they should consider, what they should ask for in a letter and the differences between writing on behalf of an individual or a group.
“We looked through a few examples of advocacy letters and then put attendees in a few breakout rooms to practice writing their own advocacy letter on a given topic . . . The workshop was well attended and participants reported in a survey that they found it to be informative, fun and engaging,” emphasized Little.
Throughout the year, SSAP has been a place of community and collaboration for students, despite the pandemic.
“We hope that the impact of providing students with resources and tools will empower them to create positive change in their communities that will reach far and wide. The program itself is an example of what can be accomplished through collaboration, even when collaborating remotely,” said Little.