On June 15th 2012, two students from the University of Pennsylvania presented a Rio+20 pre-conference session at the United States Department Pavilion. Their presentation “Sustainability Knows No Boundaries” gave insight into higher education’s role in sustainability, both in curriculum and facilities.
They discussed the many interdisciplinary initiatives that Penn incorporates to its curriculum, such as the Master of Environmental Studies program and the Architecture school’s concentrations in land use management and urban sustainable development. Additionally, many Penn faculties are incorporating sustainability as part of the overall institution’s commitment. As part of Penn’s Climate Action Plan and internal commitments to sustainability, David Schreiber outlined Penn’s refurbishing many of its historical buildings with more efficient, energy saving lighting. Additionally, the University has developed strategies for green space with the development of Penn Park, a former industrial site that Penn upgraded and redid to become a river-side park and playing fields for the city of Philadelphia and Penn students.
Maria-Tzina (Gina) then spoke about student-led initiatives on campus, which she said compliment and sometimes stimulate the institution to become more self-aware of their overall environmental impact. She presented The Penn chapter is the first North American chapter of the 25 year old organization. Gina discussed her experiences in one of the oikos programs, the Student Reporter program, at the World Water Forum 6.
What’s more, the presenters introduced a revolutionary student run publication at Penn, wH2O: The Journal for Gender & Water. This is the only journal dedicated to gender and water issues. wH2O is housed at Penn, but it is a global initiative, with writers, board members and editors from around the world. It is the first journal to focus on gender and water issues, despite the proven importance of incorporating women into managing water, sanitation and agricultural projects for long-term project sustainability. Caroline D’Angelo, co-founder and Editor-in-Chief said that “wH2O was very happy to be represented at Rio+20, where we hope that women will be a central focus of sustainable development agreements.”
The presentation lasted for about an hour and a half and there was an intimate audience of ten individuals compromising of Brazilian and Japanese students, an Amazonian tribe leader representative, NGO members and a local media connection. The session ended with a fruitful question and answer session. As Schreiber said after the session, “Diversity is what makes these conferences interesting and fun. Our audience was small, but it had people from Japan to the Amazon rain forest. They were very willing to participate with us. We greatly appreciated their interest and questions, as well as their perspectives on sustainability and student life. I believe that people felt more comfortable approaching us because we were students, rather than delegates or other high level officials.”
Rio+20 is a monumental event that is attempting to represent change in the most effective of ways. Youth and their involvement on these topics are crucial to developing new kinds of leaders. Through Higher Education learning and opportunities, students and faculty can reach the capability of putting what they learn into practice. As Leria describes, “Rio+20 is more than a typical UN conference. There is an idea and a philosophy behind it. Here, in Rio de Janeiro, the freshness of young people’s minds intersect with the wisdom of the elderly. This unique and creative combination hides a great potential that can lead us to a more humane and sustainable future.”