Students advising the Presidential Working Group on Sustainability influence how the university pivots to a more sustainable future.
By Christian Hetrick
Price School students John Cadiz and Monty Hughes can trace their passions for protecting the environment to what they witnessed in their hometowns.
Each morning, Cadiz would drive by oil fields on his way to high school in Bakersfield, California, where he’d often smell burning gas and once felt the heat from a pipeline explosion from miles away. Cadiz, who’s pursuing a Master’s degree in Urban Planning, suspects exposure to pollution may have played a role in an aunt’s early death from cancer.
On the other side of the country—in Brunswick, Georgia—Hughes lived near a paper mill plant owned by the industrialist Koch brothers. He, too, grew up whiffing pollution, an “eggy” reek that swept through town when the wind blew the wrong way. Hughes, a junior in Price’s Philanthropy, Nonprofits and Social Innovation track, noted that low-income families lived closest to that plant.
Motivated by their personal experiences, both students are now helping USC become a more sustainable institution. Last year, Cadiz and Hughes led the newly launched Student Sustainability Committee (SSC), an advisory body offering input on university projects and policies. The committee is within the Presidential Working Group on Sustainability (PWG), which was established in 2019 and composed of administrators, faculty and staff developing a university-wide strategy, called Assignment: Earth.
The SSC, which seeks to add students’ voice to the discussion, will announce this year’s members during USC’s Green Week.
“It’s really important for students to have a seat at the table,” said Hughes, 19, who served as the committee’s undergraduate team leader. “Young people are passionate about sustainability. They’re passionate about climate justice, about climate change and environmental issues.”
Students taking the lead
Hughes and Cadiz, the graduate team leader, oversaw a group of 36 students who worked on projects from helping develop a sustainability orientation program to advising the PWG on a potential “sustainability hub” on campus. Committee members examined USC’s expansion of solar power, explored its impact on the Los Angeles community and brought together students from 14 schools, many of which have unique sustainability issues. The SSC hosted a town hall-style meeting to discuss sustainability at the university.
“A lot of it, from our point of view, was really trying to understand the big scope, learning from other universities and trying to bring those recommendations,” Cadiz, 23, said of the committee’s work. “One of our biggest goals is to make sustainability transparent at USC.”
The obligation of research universities
Cadiz and Hughes believe research universities can play a big role in solving environmental problems, both as hubs of innovation and integral parts of their local economies. Universities could be on the forefront of scaling sustainable solutions, Hughes said, noting that USC aims to be carbon neutral by 2025.
“Universities have an obligation to be diving headfirst in the world of sustainability,” Hughes said. “I think universities are testing the waters for what’s going to come to other industries, to other sectors.”
Students pitched the USC administration last year on creating the committee. One of them was Hannah Findling, a Price School alum who now works as a project specialist for USC’s Office of the President. The administration—which had been seeking ways to get students more involved in sustainability efforts—wholeheartedly backed the idea, said Findling.
In addition to hearing students’ ideas, USC wants to train them to become future sustainability leaders. “What better way to do that than saying, ‘Why don’t you be a part of the process of making this institution sustainable?’” said Findling, who earned a Master of Public Administration degree.
The SSC experience has already shaped Hughes, a self-described “agitator” who previously advocated for change by campaigning for like-minded candidates and environmental groups. This time, Hughes was on the inside of a decision-making committee. The experience has him considering a new career path in institutional sustainability.
“Working in institutional sustainability couldn’t be any more different because everybody at the table is behind the mission,” Hughes said, contrasting it with the political battles to win elections. “We all want the same thing, and we’re kind of arguing about how exactly to do it.”
Cadiz wants to aim even higher than just being sustainable, having seen environmental inequities in both his hometown and parts of Los Angeles.
“Sustainability is the idea of just sustaining ourselves, but I think we should think about, how do we make it regenerative?” Cadiz said. “That’s something that’s driving my interest in sustainability, to not only be okay with where we’re at, but also envision something better.”