Debra Kutska – Spreading Sustainability in Higher Education

 In Entrepreneurial Women, Strategy, Thinking About, Walking the Talk

Debra Kutska is the Sustainability Specialist for Oakton Community College. She is an entrepreneurial woman working in higher education to assist her college’s administration, faculty, and students in making environmentally and socially sound decisions. In her four years there, she’s helped make some radical changes.

What was your path that led you to work in sustainability?

I took a little bit of a different path than most folks in my field.  I actually started my career in the zoo world. I grew up in Roselle, Illinois – a suburb of Chicago and obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences from Eastern Illinois University, where my focus was on animals. I worked as a volunteer and then as a seasonal zookeeper for a couple years after a zookeeping internship at Brookfield Zoo. Summers were spent zookeeping and the school year was spent assisting in the special education department of my former high school. I left to pursue a Master’s Degree in Conservation Biology at Columbia University in New York City where I had the opportunity to intern at the Central Park Zoo on animal behavior research as well as the Bronx Zoo in public research and evaluation of guest experiences. After graduation, I came back to Illinois to work at Brookfield Zoo – this time in the education field. I spent over seven years managing a high school volunteer and college internship programs in addition to being involved with community outreach and conservation leadership and training opportunities. After becoming a parent, I was looking to spend more time with my children and sought a part-time role that would allow me to do that, yet was still aligned with my passions and skills. Having worked in conservation and hoping to change behavior and actions –  I saw sustainability as a different path to achieve similar results. I looked at how I could help people change their behavior from an organizational and business perspective. And, that’s how I found my job here at Oakton Community College. The position allowed me to spend a lot more time with my kids (now four and six) and grow professionally as well. A year ago, the position was made full-time.

How did you become so interested in conservation initially?

As with most people I know, it started at a young age with personal experiences. There’s a whole field of conservation psychology that looks at why people care about the world. Some of the resonating themes include important nature experiences with a caring adult. I was very fortunate that my parents both loved being outside. We took family vacations to the beach, so I had lots of interactions with ocean life. We also had a place in Wisconsin that my grandparents owned in a little town called Almond – a short drive from a couple of small lakes. We would pack up and go out there to fish along the shore or take the boat out. Everyday we would find bugs, catch frogs, and enjoy nature. My Oma and Opa also had a huge garden, as did my dad, so we spent time picking fruits and vegetables and watching rabbits and other wildlife. My parents were able to take us on vacations and we spent time at the zoo. I know these experiences impacted my interest in nature and animals.

I was also that kid that collected water samples from the ditches and looked at them under my microscope. I was very curious about the natural world. As a zookeeper, the more that I worked with animals, the more I learned about their wild counterparts and what was happening in ecosystems across the planet – realizing the devastation caused by human action. That’s what really made me start thinking, “What can I do?”  While I love physically working with animals, I wanted to help create a broader impact – to change behavior to make a difference in protecting natural areas.

Can you speak about the different facets of your work here are Oakton Community College and why it’s important?

First off, when it comes to college in general – most individuals, whether they’re traditional age college students in the 18 to 21 range or non-traditional, adult students coming in at an older age – everyone’s here to grow professionally and personally. It’s a really good time to inform them of their greater impact on the world. Sustainability is a big-picture topic. You need to be able to understand what’s happening in the world; you need to be able to look outside of your own personal life, home, community and try to put yourself in other people’s shoes. You need to think long-term. it’s more than just what choices you’re making today but how those will impact the natural world, other people, and future generations. Here at the community college, it’s wonderful because you get so many students from different walks of life, different ethnicities and socio-economic levels, backgrounds, and career changes, so they are able to bring interesting ideas to the table.

So what are some changes that have been made here at Oakton?

We’ve done a number of things. One of the really exciting projects is that we’ve developed an environmental studies concentration. Students completing either an Associate’s Degree or a certificate program have the option of taking general education courses that have an environmental or sustainability theme.

For example, in an English composition course, faculty would focus on readings and writings about sustainability, the environment, animals, or agriculture. The students learn the skills required for those particular courses, but do so while learning and discussing important environmental concepts.  The program is intentional about incorporating the sciences and humanities, which makes it unique. The college received grants from the National Institute of the Humanities and Oakton Educational Foundation for its launch, which showed a lot of outside support for the effort. It has been really nice to see how the students take these topics and create projects for the campus and influence other students as well. For instance, a couple of our honors students this year did their research project on food composting. They came to talk to me about what we have and haven’t done on campus with regard to organics collection in our cafeterias and for catered events. Those are real conversations that are being used to push forward change. As a result, we are now talking with our food-service provider about encouraging more food composting. It’s really important to have curriculum tied to hands-on learning.

Can you give another example?

A couple of years ago, we had some students that successfully initiated a plastic water bottle ban here at the Oakton campus. They were upset about the social and environmental impact about bottling water and selling it to consumers. So they decided they wanted to pursue getting single-use plastic bottled water banned from our campus.

The effort started in an honors class with a research project, which they then presented to the college community. They also got over 1500 students and employees to sign a petition to ban the sales of single-use plastic bottled water. It moved on to the President’s Council, who were impressed with the initiative and research students put into the effort. They agreed to implement the ban. So, in November of 2016, we successfully instituted a ban on selling plastic bottled water on campus. This proved that students can truly impact what happens on campus with their voice.

That is really amazing.

Now all new students receive their own reusable water bottle, through orientation or different tabling events. We also invested in multiple hydration stations, so that filtered water is available in all of our buildings.

There is a network of colleges and universities that have implemented a similar ban across the nation as well. There is also a website and a community created by students that is called Ban the Bottle that has a list of different participating colleges and universities who have all done water bottle bans.

This past spring, I, along with a few faculty colleagues from Oakton presented at the College Consortium of International Studies annual conference held in Costa Rica and we shared the work we have accomplished here at Oakton from the ESC to learning communities focused on sustainability to our waste reduction efforts. Our colleagues were impressed to learn about what was happening on a community college level and we were eager to learn what we could from them about how we could further enhance our offerings.

How does sustainability integrate into your life personally?

I am very conscious of my waste. That’s been one of the biggest behavior changes  in my personal life. It started when I was working at the zoo as that environmental really emphasized  the importance of thinking about our footprints. It started with a few simple actions for reducing waste in my daily life. For instance, I stopped using brown bags and ziploc bags and began using my own reusable containers and water bottle for lunch. Then it morphed to more actions. A few years ago I looked at my personal care items and realized many of them were in plastic bottles and containers.  So, I switched to using shampoo bars and bar soap instead of bottled shampoo and body wash. I get a lot of my products from the company LUSH because I like their sustainable approach to business. Their products are sold in recycled packaging and you can bring the packaging back to the store for recycling. We’re also very big on water conservation at home so we only use we have to – we don’t let the water run when doing dishes and purchase Water Sense fixtures, for example. From a bigger perspective, we are reducing our meat consumption by having more meatless meals during the week. My husband and I work to hold each other accountable and also try to instill these habits in our kids.

We’re very fortunate we live in Mount Prospect, IL as the city has been great about incorporating sustainability . We now have curbside food scraps collection. Before, we did have a compost bin in our backyard, but now our food scraps are picked up every week along with lawn waste. It makes it even more manageable. We participate in their curbside textile recycling program too, which can be a hard resource to find. In the past couple of years, we also started collecting clean plastic wrap from packaging and what few plastic bags we do accumulate, which we can then recycle in town or at local retailers.

With our kids, my husband and I try to get outside as much as possible. We have adventure days – we pick a nature center to explore and spend time outside. We go to the zoo or forest preserve to observe wildlife and walk the trails. We jump in puddles and dig for worms. We hunt for cicadas in various stages of metamorphosis. Now that I know more about research and development in education, I know that it is important for kids to have unstructured time. You’ll make a change in your behaviour toward sustainability only if you really care about the world around you.

What’s a challenge you are working on at the college right now?

One of our efforts as a college is to reduce our waste generation as a whole. We are also working on increasing our diversion rate to reduce what we contribute to landfills. Currently, we have single-stream recycling plus we have a food composting project over at our Skokie campus where we have a compost bin in the dining room.

I’d mentioned earlier we’re trying to get increased organics collection here on campus. Well, we’ve got a number of barriers to making that happen- and not just at Oakton Community College. One sticking point is compostable utensils. Our waste hauler is currently willing to take compostable utensils when we have a zero-waste event. However, many compost facilities are no longer accepting those compostable plastics because they aren’t breaking down well in the existing systems they use. Think about how compostable utensils are constructed: In order to withstand hot temperatures of food so the silverware doesn’t melt while you’re eating, they need to be produced to a certain strength.  Well when they get tossed into industrial composting facilities one of their main methods for breaking down the items is through high heat. The plastics are resistant to high heat, so they’re not breaking down. As a result, many compost facilities either no longer take those compostable utensils or they’re sifting them out and throwing them into landfill anyway. That’s one of the bigger picture challenges that we’re facing. We have students, staff and faculty who would like to have more compostable utensils in our regular dining service, but we eventually may be told that we can’t compost them anymore.

I am trying encourage reusable utensil use, but when you do that, you have to make sure you have the facilities and staff to wash them, and you’ve got the cost of buying them, and you have to encourage behaviours to ensure they don’t get thrown out in the garbage can. This represents another challenge – recycling bin contamination. If we have an organics collection bin in the cafeteria that isn’t watched 24/7 by a student or a staff member, we know that there’s going to be a lot of garbage that ends up in the organics bin. And if the recycling and organics bins are contaminated, everything goes straight to the landfill anyway. So, we really need to be intentional when we do these projects by thinking about the whole process. And, of course, we need to look at the financial side. We need to ensure we are using our funds wisely and using cost-effective methods while also making environmentally-sound decisions.

Creating meaningful impact takes a lot of discussion, education, and awareness raising, because most people don’t think about these things. We live in a throwaway, convenient society. It’s really about getting people to become aware of and then care about this these issues so that these behaviours are a no-brainer in their lives.

I try to lead by example at the college. If I go out and get coffee, I bring my own reusable cup to Dunkin Donuts and have them fill it, or I bring my own reusable plates and forks to potlucks on campus. We handed out reusable silverware packets to students and staff at one of our events the past couple years to encourage them to carry them around and use them in the cafeteria. It’s really a mindset and behavior change that we need to work on.

What is an important trait to have for women who want to make a change in the world?

Being persistent is the number one trait because you’ll get told, “NO” quite a bit. You’ll be faced with a lot of barriers. It’s very easy to just back down and accept that, so it’s crucial to be persistent and be bold enough to pull yourself back up and try again. Also, being creative and inventive to try and come up with new ways to solve a problem and new ways to approach a situation. In addition, I think that relationship building is very important, because people need to find an emotional connection. The more you get to know the people that you work with or the people you’re trying to impact, the more you find out what motivates them or what they care about to help them feel empowered to make changes. If you build your own network and solidify relationships, then those people care about you. They’ll want to help you succeed and you won’t feel like you are alone. It’s also important to be able to think positively and not let the state of the world get you down.

I think for me and what I try to leave people with is that – sustainability can be overwhelming. It’s important to realize that we are all on a spectrum of conservation and sustainable behavior and there is always another step you can take to minimize your impact.  I don’t expect people to go from living their own lives to living off the grid, to growing all their own food and using reusable toilet paper overnight. There are a lot of steps to take. But, I encourage them to make one change and understand that there is a lot of room for growth. If you take small steps forward, it also inspires others to take steps. As you keep making changes, you look back over time and you can see you have made a big impact.

Also, you can vote! Make your voice heard at all levels of government – at the local, state and federal level. One or two policies can make such a big difference compared to small steps in personal behavior. Know your politicians, share your voice and opinions, and vote!

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