Student Efforts Anchor Fourth Voluntary University Review of Sustainable Development Goals

Carnegie Mellon University released its fourth Voluntary University Review of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on April 1.

The VUR catalogs activities by students, faculty and staff to advance the SDGs, also known as the Global Goals, and reflects Carnegie Mellon’s long-standing efforts to sustainably address society’s most pressing needs.

Designed to create a more equitable and sustainable planet by 2030, the Global Goals are 17 objectives adopted in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly after input from millions of people around the world.

New this year, the report has evolved in purpose and structure to better serve the campus community by highlighting partnerships and sharing resources.

Alexandra Hiniker , director of the Sustainability Initiative, said the team’s tailored approach calls attention to specific contributions from departments across the university related to sustainability, rather than a comprehensive audit as in years past.

"Students reviewed all the previous reports, they conducted outreach to different departments, they did surveys and they drafted the bulk of the report," Hiniker said. "It’s meant for everybody, but it’s student-driven."

This year, the initiative’s internship program has flourished and allowed for that increased student involvement, a priority for Provost and Chief Academic Officer James H. Garrett Jr. and the Provost’s Office, Hiniker said.

"They are a stellar group of thoughtful students who sat down with me to think through what it is the university should be doing that’s actually useful and beneficial to the CMU community," Hiniker said. "They all’have different perspectives and share them in a collaborative environment to create inclusive programming."

In 2019, Garrett launched CMU’s Sustainability Initiative on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

The following year, the university issued the then-first-of-its-kind report to strengthen its commitment to equity, justice and the environment.

In October 2022, CMU opened a dedicated physical space for the initiative called the Sustainability Studio at Hunt Library. Offering office hours with university sustainability experts and monthly Open Studios focused on subsets of the Global Goals, the studio and its programming has served to bring students, faculty and staff together to talk about their work and how it is relevant to sustainability.

Building those connections is important, as community engagement intern Purva Bommireddy has discovered while planning events such as the "snack hour" discussions highlighted in the VUR.

She recalled a recent iteration of the purposefully informal events focused on study abroad.

"There were so many people just studying in the library that joined in, and we had such a big group, all’of a sudden, talking and engaged and getting excited," said Bommireddy, a junior double major studying civil and environmental engineering statistics and machine learning.

Keeping sustainability a part of everyday conversations helps everyone stay mindful of its overall importance, she said, such as considerations when studying overseas.

"That was a moment when I understood why we’re doing this work through the Sustainability Initiative," Bommireddy said, adding that what started as a handful of students turned into a gathering of about 25. "Inserting sustainability into more informal programs was great to see." 

Highlighted in the latest report, four Sustainability Initiative interns traveled to the U.N. General Assembly in New York City to take part in sessions related to the Global Goals in September.

Then in November, three students visited the United Nations in Geneva to participate in a conference on humanitarian disarmament.

"This model of having the students themselves lead this and shape it in the way that they find interesting results in more student engagement," Hiniker said.

Carnegie Mellon students have also connected with those at the University of Pittsburgh and Chatham University for a Youth Leaders in Sustainability Symposium, and held a collaborative tour on March 30 of its Eden Hall campus, designed to explore sustainable solutions.

"We’re still in the process of building these networks," Bommireddy said. "The first step is getting everyone to have a shared understanding, which makes it easier to bridge the gap between people."

Drop-in lunch and learn programs have served to create those connections for Cristina Goeller, a student in the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy’s Public Policy and Management program.

"It’s a really low-stakes engagement opportunity to talk about students’ experiences at Heinz and the Sustainability Initiative as a resource," she said.

As the Heinz College Diversity, Inclusion, Climate and Equity liaison, she has been mindful of partnering with some of CMU’s more than 80 diversity-related student organizations when building those important networks and planning conversations.

While most people associate sustainability with efforts related to climate change or recycling, Hiniker said a major focus of the Sustainability Initiative, guided by the Global Goals, continues to go deeper than that, as the latest report continues to show.

"The sustainable development goals link environmental, social and economic factors, and that’s what we focus on when we connect with university partners," she said. "We want to lift up and strengthen these connections across campus, and also identify new and unexpected areas for collaboration."

Highlights of the 2023 Voluntary University Review

In its fourth edition, the Voluntary University Review showcases sustainability activities and partnerships with the Sustainability Initiative. Anyone can submit ideas , events and partnership opportunities to further strengthen the work of the initiative. Highlights in this year’s report include:

    Launching undergraduate research fellowships  - In collaboration with the Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholar Development , five new Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships will be awarded for study related to the Global Goals.

  • Hosting Sustainability Snack Hours, Open Studios and Office Hours - With the grand reopening of the Sustainability Studio in October, the welcoming space set the stage for events fostering informal conversations and community-building with activities centering sustainability and a place for sustainability-focused student organizations.

  • Supporting a study abroad experiential learning program in Costa Rica  - In partnership with the Department of Modern Languages , the Sustainability Initiative is hosting a program this summer at the Monteverde Institute in the Puntarenas region of Costa Rica.

    Working with the EcoCampus Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar - CMU-Q is focusing on food equity, climate change and campus waste management as well as pursuing a Green Flag designation from the U.K.-based Foundation for Environmental Education.

    Reaching out to the Pittsburgh region - Led by Sustainable Pittsburgh, a network called DISCOVER (Defining Intersectional Sustainability to Collaboratively Optimize for a Vibrant and Equitable Region) is creating a shared, inclusive framework for measuring progress among other activities.

CMU Earns Gold Rating for Commitment to Green Practices, Sustainability