Community Colleges across the United States are fundamental to the nation’s higher education system. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, “nearly half of all undergraduates in the United States attend community colleges”. Community Colleges are affordable, and serve our most underrepresented populations, from Black, Hispanic, Native and Asian students, to first-generation students and veterans. However, they can face many challenges in serving their communities while also addressing climate change, including lack of funding and staff.

We asked Cedar Valley College, part of the Dallas County Community College District in Texas and longtime member of the Climate Leadership Network, about their experience as a Carbon and now Climate Commitment Signatory. Below, Dr. Maria Boccalandro, Interim Dean of Instructional Support and Distance Education and Sustainability Director, shares the story of their path from struggling with reporting, to being a two-time finalist for the Climate Leadership Awards.

What first inspired Cedar Valley College (CVC) to sign the Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitments (formerly the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment)?

The former President of CVC, Dr. Jennifer Wimbish, was one of the first community college presidents to sign the commitment because she belonged to the Presidents Advisory Cabinet of the Sustainability Education and Economic Development (SEED) Center of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). She had a vision of CVC being a Center of Excellence of Sustainability. Green careers were designed, and after 12 years of hard work, CVC has won awards from two different organizations for its efforts to create sustainable communities. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) announced on October 9, 2016 that Cedar Valley had won the AASHE Campus Sustainability Achievement Award. Separately, the American Association of Community Colleges announced that the college had received the Green Genome Award in the community engagement category. Additionally, CVC has been selected as a finalist in Second Nature’s Climate Leadership Awards in 2015 and 2016.

What were some of the challenges that your school faced in implementing your commitment?

The lack of funds to be more energy and water efficient, as well as the lack of understanding of climate change and resistance in believing it is science. As a community college we work with taxpayers’ money and there are no funds for research, and the type of courses we offer are limited to the core courses for transfer students or workforce certificates.

What motivated CVC to work to be back in fulfillment with the Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitments and how were you able to do it?

It was the right thing to do. The former President provided the funds to contract a full time employee for the sustainability initiatives, including the Carbon Commitment reports. All schools in the Dallas County Community College District have four strategic goals. We added a fifth: sustainability. We embedded sustainability in all other goals: student and employee success, institutional effectiveness, and community engagement. Our vision is sustainability in practice. We have very concrete practices on campus to become more sustainable. Those practices include quality of life, social justice, efficient buildings, and stewardship of our natural environment.

How has your president been involved with the Climate Commitment?

Our President participates in our monthly sustainability awareness events including an annual conference with over 400 participants, 45 speakers in breakout sessions, 40 vendors and more than 60 volunteers.

How have you made the business case for the Climate Commitment?

Talking about the triple bottom line and having emphasis on environmental justice has been a key part of making the business case. The college created various sustainability initiatives, including the Green Cord Program, which focuses on embedding sustainability practices throughout the entire curricula – approximately 200 green courses to date. The faculty-led program certifies instructors as “green,” and students who take three “green” courses get a green cord when they graduate. This is included in their transcript that makes the graduates more competitive in the workplace market.

What do you see as the role of Community Colleges in the sustainability field?

A huge role, because of the variety of students we serve. We work with the local high schools in dual credit and collegiate programs, with local businesses in workforce development, as well as with the community college student whose average age is 27 years old. Including sustainability principles into the curricula and college activities might sometimes be the only time a student has been exposed to this knowledge. At the community college we meet the students where they are. We accompany each student on their pathway and they take the sustainability initiatives and experiences with them to their families, workplace, or 4-year higher education institutions where they will obtain their bachelor degree.

Photo credit: Photo Courtesy of Cedar Valley College