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U of M scores big at international sustainability conference

By Greg Russell

The were no gold medals handed out, no international TV exposure, but two University of Memphis representatives came back to Memphis winners all the same at a conference featuring countries from around the world.

U of M sustainability coordinator Amelia Mayahi and Visiting Professor of Architecture and Design Jennifer Thompson traveled to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, earlier this summer to take part in the prestigious World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities, an event parallel to the United Nations conference for Sustainable Development known as Rio+20. Not only did the pair score big with a paper they authored that was one of eight keynote presentations, the U of M as a whole made a big splash.

Architecture graduate student Jenn Thompson (left) and U of M sustainability coordinator Amelia Mayahi at a recent international conference on environmental issues held in Brazil.
Visiting Professor of Architecture and Design Jenn Thompson (left) and U of M sustainability coordinator Amelia Mayahi at a recent international conference on environmental issues held in Brazil.

“This was a great moment for the University,” Mayahi said. “We were an international icon at a sustainability conference that featured 57 universities from such places as Finland, China, the Netherlands, India and Australia.”

The objectives of the conference were to secure renewed political commitment to sustainable development, to assess progress towards internationally agreed goals on sustainable development and to address new and emerging challenges. The summit also focused on two specific themes: a green economy in the context of poverty eradication and sustainable development, and an institutional framework for sustainable development. UNCSD offers a unique opportunity to also discuss the extent to which universities have been providing a meaningful contribution towards the efforts in shaping a better world.

“What I came away with is that our university can be a leader in sustainability,” Mayahi said. “We’re very much at the forefront of sustainability in terms of vision and mindfulness of faculty, staff and students.”

Their paper examines how academics and other elements of a university campus such as faculty, staff, students and facilities can come together to create a coherent system for sustainable development.

“It focuses on how a campus such as ours can reach its sustainability goals within a system theory where everyone — faculty, staff and students – work together to achieve those goals.

The paper, “Convergence and Confluence: Systems Thinking Approach to Integrated Sustainability in Higher Education,” will be published in a special issue of the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education (IJSHE) and in the book Sustainable Development at Universities: New Horizons. This book is a further volume of the award-winning book series Environmental Education, Communication and Sustainability. It is the world’s longest running book series on education and communication on sustainable development.

Mayahi said one thing she came away from the conference with was that universities around the world all face the same sustainability challenges.

“We’re still in the early stages of campus sustainability initiatives, maybe a trial and error stage. When you see universities like those in Finland facing the same challenges we are facing, it makes you feel we are not falling behind but rather have the opportunity to work with them for the same common goal. I feel like we will remain at the forefront of sustainability initiatives.”

Since becoming sustainability coordinator three years ago, Mayahi has greatly expanded the U of M’s recycling program and spearheaded several energy efficiency initiatives among other things. Thompson, also sustainability coordinator for the Department of Architecture, teaches sustainability in her classes and, along with architecture students and staff, recently completed a recycle zone project that is adjacent to Mynders Hall.

“What better way to be a leader in sustainability than being an international icon for sustainable development at universities,” Mayahi said of the U of M’s representation at the conference. “We have high hopes of shifting the U of M even further toward a more sustainable future.”

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