Sustaining Positive Change

Cusker 225x150

When it comes to living sustainably, “what we do as individuals makes a difference,” says Cori Cusker, a Sustainable Communities graduate student at Northern Arizona University. And she doesn’t just talk the talk: As a part of her master's thesis, Cusker created No Impact Jack, a sustainable living incentive for students who reside on campus, aiding the university in its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2020.

Creating No Impact Jack

Cusker says the intent of No Impact Jack is to show students living on campus that they have the ability to make sustainable choices—and that they should. Cusker knows people often think, “What does it matter if I throw away that one can instead of putting it in the recycling bin?” But, she says, “I try to communicate to people that if we all choose to recycle that can, then the collective impact is a positive, amazing thing.”

No Impact Jack was made possible when Cusker received Northern Arizona University’s Hooper Sustainability Award, a grant for students working on sustainability projects on campus or in northern Arizona. And with additional backing by Housing and Residence Life and the university, she was able to launch the program in fall 2011.

Students who live on campus and want to become a No Impact Jack can apply for a Sustainable Living Certificate by committing to less wasteful and more eco-friendly actions. The actions fall into the categories of:

  • energy
  • water
  • transportation
  • computers
  • the three R’s (reduce, reuse, and recycle)
  • food
  • laundry
  • campus action

Once students make the commitment, they receive a certificate to hang on their doors as a testament to their sustainability dedication. So far, hundreds of students and at least 50 resident assistants are part of this sustainable living community. Her ultimate goal is to leave a lasting impression in higher-ed sustainability.

“In some ways, I am trying to create a social movement," Cusker said. "I want it to be something that students want to do, something that makes them proud. I also want this to be the type of program that other universities will seek out and emulate.”

Becoming a sustainability master

Cusker's interest in sustainability was sparked when she worked as a residence hall director during her undergraduate years at Southern Methodist University (SMU). After working at SMU for five years, she was drawn to Northern Arizona University’s graduate program in sustainable communities and, once on campus, realized she had a perfect opportunity to reach out and teach other students in the process.

As a graduate assistant for Learning Communities for Housing and Residence Life, she had a vision for students to learn that they have choices and control over how they decide to live their lives on campus. "I wanted them to understand that it’s important they make sustainable choices because they have an impact on the greater campus,” Cusker said.

Aiding a university-wide effort

Cusker’s idea is part of a larger effort by the university to promote sustainability, both within the NAU community and beyond. President John Haeger was a charter signatory to the American Colleges and University President's Carbon Commitment (ACUPCC) in 2007, which led to the university's Climate Action Plan—a commitment to achieve carbon neutrality at Northern Arizona University by 2020.

The 2020 plan involves continuing to integrate sustainability into curriculum and research, setting energy standards for all new buildings, reducing emissions from transportation, increasing local, organic, and fair-trade food in dining halls, creating a zero waste campus, and reducing water consumption. Additionally, programs such as the Master of Arts in Sustainable Communities that Cusker is a part of allow students to apply theories about sustainable living through community and hands-on research.

Traditionally, residence halls bear a large carbon footprint; therefore, convincing students to make more sustainable choices is a prerequisite in reaching carbon neutrality. Cusker believes that a university does not just have a choice, but a responsibility, to educate students on living conscientiously. “That is the role of higher education, right?" she posits. "To prepare students to be contributing citizens to the world after they leave us?”