Gina Hnytka

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Ohio State's SUSTAINS Learning Community is an interdisciplinary group of students seeking to complement what's taught in the classroom with deep, diverse discussion around sustainability issues and service opportunities.

Did you know that Ohio State offers a living-learning experience focused on the delicate balance of environmental, economic and social sustainability? This group is called SUSTAINS Learning Community, and Earth Day seems to be the appropriate time to highlight the work of the outstanding student leaders I work with through this initiative on campus. 

Early in 2013, through my work with the Environment, Economy, Development, Sustainability (EEDS) academic program faculty/staff team, I identified a need to provide opportunities for students to engage with faculty, staff and other students and to pursue professional development, education and intentional co-curricular opportunities related to social, economic and environmental sustainability.

After garnering support from Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics, the School of Environment and Natural Resources, Student Life, the Office of Energy and Environment and other key partners, the SUSTAINS (Students Understanding Sustainability and Taking Action to Improve Nature and Society) Learning Community initiative was created, and the program officially launched at the start of fall semester 2014. (And, yes, our students do know what the long acronym represents and will recite it)!

Students applied to the program, and the result was a group of 15 fantastic students who became what I now refer to as the “roots” or the foundation of the SUSTAINS Learning Community. These students are enrolled in a variety of major programs, but all are engaged with sustainability offices and organizations on campus. Fast forward to year two, and we now have 40 students in SUSTAINS, 25 new members (or what I call our “shoots”) and 15 upper-class members, some of whom returned to the group as mentors or “roots” in their second year in the program. About 40 percent of our members are students enrolled in the School of Environment and Natural Resources, and the other 60 percent are enrolled in other majors around campus, which adds depth and diversity to our discussions.

So what does SUSTAINS do?

Students must apply to the learning community and, if extended an offer to join the group, live in the same residence hall to better facilitate peer-to-peer engagement and learning. All of our students participate in an early-arrival program in August.

All first-year SUSTAINS students enroll in a sustainability seminar course with me during fall semester. During this seminar experience, SUSTAINS students participate in dialogue around current issues in sustainability and have the opportunity to interact with and learn from experts in the field. Our students also are required to create and present a project proposal at the end of the course. Their projects must focus on improving an existing sustainability initiative on campus or developing a new one. Our proposals from this past year included a community garden in the North Residential District, a large-scale community service day sponsored by SUSTAINS, a recycling education campaign targeting local elementary schools and reusing K-Cups to grow seedlings that will be donated to area gardens and campus dining services.


SUSTAINS Learning Community members are all smiles after an educational canoe trip down the Olentangy River.


We also offer a robust calendar of events including engagement with many professionals, agencies and policymakers during a professional development trip to Baltimore and Washington, D.C.; participation in the annual OEFFA conference; community service with Ohio State Zero Waste, FLOW, Franklinton Gardens, Ohio State Wetlands, 4th Street Farms, Indianola Gardens and more; canoeing the Olentangy with COMPAS; a presentation to Cardinal Turkson; learning about climate change and ice cores; hosting multiple dinner and dialogues with professionals and faculty…and the list goes on.

I would also like to highlight the work of my colleague, Aaron Moore, the residence hall director for the community in which SUSTAINS is housed, and my co-lead for the program. Aaron’s knowledge of co-curricular programming, effort in creating new opportunities and dedication to the success of our students has been instrumental in growing and sustaining a high-quality program.

What began as a small project to support students has grown into a well-respected sustainability program for undergraduate students on our campus.

I know many of you have likely not yet had the opportunity to meet the students in the SUSTAINS Learning Community, and I would like to close today’s message with an invitation to join us for a conversation or event, or to collaborate.

The SUSTAINS Learning Community offers an opportunity to engage with an eclectic mix of motivated students who are interested in research, professional development and gaining the skills needed to solve global challenges. If you are interested in engaging with us, please reach out to me. Our students would love to meet you, and I would love for them to learn more about the exceptional faculty, staff and students working to make Ohio State a sustainable campus community.

About the author

Gina Hnytka
Gina Hnytka

Gina Hnytka is responsible for academic program management and student engagement for undergraduate and graduate programs in the Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics, provides leadership to the EEDS major, and founded the SUSTAINS Learning Community.


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