Opinion & Editorial

Making a Difference in the St. Louis Community Through WashU’s Sustainability Program

We recently sat down with our Sustainability Program Coordinator, Mary Ann Lazarus, to learn more about sustainability and how the sustainability degree and certificate programs offered at  School of Continuing & Professional Studies (formerly University College) at Washington University are improving the St. Louis region as a whole.

Tell us a little about your role and what Sustainability programs are offered at WashU’s School of Continuing & Professional Studies (CAPS).

I am the Sustainability Program Coordinator, and my role is to work with the CAPS administration to build a program that serves students of all ilk who are interested in understanding how they can apply sustainability principles in their offices, homes, and communities — either through the certificate program, the degree program, or individual courses

The Bachelor of Science in Sustainability is one of the only sustainability programs in the region. It’s actually the only sustainability degree offered at Washington University in St. Louis, and it’s a program that takes all the arts and sciences — the richness of the programs — and adds individual courses that are developed through the sustainability program to create a strong degree and background in sustainability.

Those interested in earning a Sustainability degree or certificate might wonder, “What can I do with a sustainability certificate or degree?”

We recently introduced a new course, called the Foundations and Practice of Sustainability, to help students understand that question. One of the key exercises is to interview people who have sustainability roles in their profession. Students will spend time talking to working professionals — people in banks, in nonprofit, in academia and architecture industries — about what sustainability means to them, how they apply that in their work, what lessons they learned and what do they wish they would have done differently. So it’s really trying to help students understand what it means to study sustainability, and how might this affect their career direction whether it’s within what they’re already doing, if they’re looking for a career change, or if they’re just curious. 

What is unique about the Sustainability program at CAPS?

We see St. Louis as our laboratory and encourage application-based learning by taking field trips, engaging with people in the local community, and learning from those experiences.The faculty who are teaching it. We have phenomenal practitioners in the St. Louis community who are teaching our courses. For example, the director of sustainability for the city of St. Louis, Catherine Werner, teaches a course. Colin Wellenkamp, the executive director of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, teaches a course. We have a new faculty member this upcoming fall, Brian Hurd, who is a program manager at Rise Community Development. So, people who are deeply versed in trying to achieve sustainable outcomes in whatever their walk of life might be are teaching our classes.

Our students are from St. Louis and are people often who grew up here and have a real deep knowledge and desire to make a difference in our community.”

Tying that together with the exposure to the faculty and other people within the region who are doing sustainability work, we’re really strengthening those bonds and committing to creating a better St. Louis region.

We’ve had students work with neighborhood organizations on developing their sustainable neighborhood plan. I worked with a student who’s an interior designer and was working with the university to help advance sustainable specifications for furniture and finishes. So the outcomes are real and meaningful both to the student and the impact they have in the local community. 

What type of students are in your classes?

WashU students are from a wide variety of backgrounds and are remarkably different because they are more experienced. They have life experiences. They have families. Sometimes they’re 20-30 years in a career so they bring a very different perspective than students who kind of traditionally want to be told what to do, “How do I get this B to an A?” Our students are much more self-driven and really control themselves and what they want to do.

So in response to our unique student body, our independent work is very much up to the student. I might provide a variety of choices of topics for the student to select from, or if they’re not interested in any of those options, students are welcome to come to me and I’ll work with them on something. It’s very much about what matters to them. I might be the teacher, I might have a lesson for the day, but it’s about the dialogue and bringing those different perspectives.

There really isn’t one instructor and a bunch of students, we all learn from each others’ experiences. I think that’s what makes the program really strong.

This Sustainability program is about creating professionals; people who will make a difference in their communities, and in particular, our own St. Louis community, and applying that framework to help our region grow.

About the Sustainability Program at WashU School of Continuing & Professional Studies

The Bachelor in Science in Sustainability provides the broad fundamental knowledge, skills and competencies to drive sustainable outcomes that address today’s urgent environmental, economic and social challenges.

The Certificate in Sustainability covers the broad sustainability knowledge, skills, and competencies for those interested in either advancing within their current field or seeking a new direction.

Both the degree and certificate program can apply across a wide range of fields: from management, design, and planning, to environmental services in business, non-profit, and public institutions.