Students have played a big role in building a culture of sustainability at McGill.
They were the driving force behind the creation of the Sustainability Projects Fund (SPF), which provides seed funding for grassroots projects across our campuses. Supported through student fees and matching contributions by the University, the fund is the biggest of its kind in Canada, valued at $1 million annually.
Since its launch in 2009, the SPF has funded more than 300 projects led by students, staff and faculty. A few examples: the highly successful “McGill Feeding McGill” project, which supplies locally grown fruits and vegetables to campus residences; a “green labs” initiative to reduce the environmental footprint of research labs; and a major program to cut down on waste and move the University closer to its goal of becoming zero-waste by 2035.
The McGill Office of Sustainability (MOOS) is a hub for all this activity. And here, too, students are key players. Undergraduate interns make up nearly half of MOOS’s staff. They help ensure all students have plenty of opportunities to contribute to the cause, in ways big and small.
To help students connect with others in the McGill community, the Office’s website includes an “engage” section that provides information on student sustainability groups, workshops and training, and much more.
For former MOOS intern Geneva Yang (B.A. & Sc. ’22), membership in student organizations has been a big part of her sustainability journey. “The student groups at McGill are all so passionate about sustainability,” she says.
Geneva, who came to McGill from China, has been an active member of several groups, including the International Development Studies Student Association and McGill Students for UN Women. While those groups aren’t focused specifically on the environment or sustainability, Geneva notes, “they have integrated it into their structure” by adopting sustainable practices and organizing sustainability-theme events.
At MOOS, Geneva created the McGill Undergraduate Sustainable Development Goals Guide. The guide lists undergrad courses, student groups and clubs, and McGill researchers working on topics related to the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It’s designed to help new students start exploring courses they might want to take and groups they might want to join.
McGill is home to more than 100 student groups that focus on sustainability or address one of the SDGs, ranging from urban agriculture and food security to clean energy and gender equity. Some of McGill’s student societies, including the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) and the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS), host their own sustainability committee.
MOOS intern Siobhan Mehrotra is a U4 student majoring in Environment and Development. “I always had an interest in sustainability in high school,” she says, but hadn’t worked on sustainability projects as part of an organization. That changed when she got to McGill.
As a first-year student at McGill, Siobhan served on her residence council. The council also had had an environmental representative, who “was the first one to take our hand and lead us through implementing sustainable initiatives like composting [in the residence hall],” Siobhan recalls. “No one wanted to do it at first,” but residents soon embraced the practice, taking ownership over cleaning and managing the bins, and “we all bonded really closely after that.”
As the MOOS intern coordinating the office’s Sustainable Events and Workplace Certification program, Siobhan now works to help raise awareness of sustainable practices in McGill workplaces and reduce waste from campus events.
Former MOOS intern Clare Shuley (BA ’22) also says her outlook on sustainability has evolved since she graduated from high school. “Being around McGill has made me a lot more aware of the different pillars of sustainability” — including the social-equity elements.
Clare supported MOOS’s student engagement programs, which include the Sustainability Ambassadors Program and the Student Sustainability Network.
Case competitions are another pathway to involvement for many students. Laurie Chan, for example, participated in a competition last year in which group members worked with an Indigenous community in British Columbia.
“I feel like it’s important to be interdisciplinary and (look toward) the intersection between the environment and everything else,” says Laurie, MOOS’s previous Sustainability Projects Fund intern and third-year student majoring in Sociology. “We always talk about how the environment should be a very central focus in the things we do, but we all have our different passions and different things we’re good at.”
Talking about sustainability “is one of the most powerful tools you can use to think through a problem,” she adds. “This exchange of ideas is where you will get innovative solutions to a lot of the different sustainability challenges we're facing.”
Whether or not you find yourself in a class or club related specifically to sustainability, “you can always find that community of students to talk about it with,” Laurie says.
Making a difference
MOOS communications intern Maya Willard-Stepan recommends that students “be really curious when you get here.”
Maya came to McGill expecting to study Physics and Music. Early on, “I started taking general-interest science courses and just started doing the math on how much time we have left” to curb climate change. “I decided I was in this position of privilege to be able to learn about these things and I really cared about them. So I decided that it was really important for me to be able to make a difference.” She shifted the focus of her studies, and now double majors in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and Physics, with a minor in Environmental Science.
With its resources to help students get involved in sustainability in all kinds of ways, MOOS is a great hub for connecting with others who hope to make a difference.
“Go to activities night. Say ‘yes’ to opportunities,” Maya says. “MOOS is there for you as a student, so make sure you’re using it.”