by Van Du, Intern – Advancing Green Building Initiative

Three years ago, on the bus ride to Maine, after picking my mother up from Boston Logan Airport as she had come to attend my graduation at Bowdoin College, we started having the usual parent-child conversation of what I was going to do with my life after school. Past conversations about school revolved around what classes I was taking and whether or not I was doing well, but it was never specifically about how my college education would prepare me for my future. During our conversation, I realized I was struggling to explain to her the meaning of the word “sustainability” and how I wanted to have a career in sustainability-related work.

There is no translation for “sustainability” in Vietnamese. But certainly, my mother understands the importance of ideas such as preserving diversity, protecting the environment, being a part of a community, caring and sharing, and of course, world peace. My mother also believes that if one considers herself a member of society, it is her responsibility to ensure that the future generations deserve a piece of all the wonderful things we have enjoyed in the past and present. However, for her, recognizing and carrying out these ideas is simply common sense. And there it was, my first revelation in life: Did I just go to college to learn about what should have been common sense?

So while I tried to explain to my mother about my dream career, she reminded me of the Vietnamese cultural values and traditions I was raised on. It was for me another great lesson of my roots, as well as a reinstatement of my passion to live and work for the concepts of sustainability.

A few months ago, I read a speech by President Elizabeth Coleman of Bennington College at the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Independent Conference. In part of her speech, President Coleman discussed the value of education and therefore its importance in helping students understand what it means to be sustainable and a responsible member of society. As she states:

“By raising the stakes to seek sustainable and systemic ways to address things in the world that really matter we make it possible to rediscover and reanimate the intellectual, imaginative, and ethical power of education… We are talking about an education, which measures value in something other than dollars or access to college. We are talking about values that are built into the very nature of the enterprise not values as an add-on. We are talking about an education that is undoubtedly challenging even daunting, lively, even explosive, but that is the furthest thing from driven or frenzied. We are talking about education as an adventure, not a treadmill (p.5).”

While it has never been direct or obvious, the concepts of sustainability have always been embedded either in my life experience or in my education. My college experience, in a way, has awakened my common sense, and moreover, my curiosity for a better understanding of the interconnectedness between people and the environment, naturally and socially, and how to live sustainably. My college experience was an education on sustainability, as it has enabled me to understand the concept of how to live as a share and a member of this community we call “the world.” It has also engaged me to act as a community member, and to think beyond my self-interests and the consequences of my actions and their effects on the community, in both negative and positive ways.

At the same time, since graduating from college with a degree in Environmental Studies and Sociology, it has been a never-ending challenge to defend my choice of education to the question (which President Coleman also mentioned in her speech) of “…oh that’s all very well but what are you going to do with a degree in…” To a certain extent, the success of an education is still measured by economic well-being, or at least what I have seen and was influenced by the immigrant past of my family and the surrounded Vietnamese community in California. At the same time, I also find it very hopeful for this generation of students, like me and my friends, who are first-generation college graduates that also come to realize the meaning of education beyond the idea of “going to college to make more money.” For me, I am humble and proud at the same time to have been engaged in the ideas of social sustainability; it definitely defines and influences the way I am building my career.

I want to work where I can look for solutions and take actions that will bring us closer to addressing social and environmental issues that are rather apparent and sometimes left ignored in the past and present. I want to work, to make sure that the concepts of sustainability will no longer be a novelty of ideas, but rather a common sense needed to be re-awakened for the sake of our future.

While I try to be more cognizant about the concepts, it has taken a long time for me to understand what sustainability really means or why it is important. Working at Second Nature is an ongoing educational journey on sustainability for me: I continue learning to be considerate, compassionate, and fair, through working on initiatives that help create leverage and equal opportunities for all students to have an education on sustainability and to understand their responsibilities of preserving, protecting and keeping our society in economic, social and environmental balance. I am always grateful for the opportunity to be part of this great movement that will lead to a more sustainable development of our communities and society as a whole.