Friday, January 20, 2012

CAS Students are Influential: Kayla Santosuosso

Over the past week-and-a-half, we have been thrilled with the opportunity to speak with three CAS students who were named by the Washington Square News as the most influential students at NYU. We'd like to extend a "thank you" to Catherine, Albert and Kayla for participating in the alumni blog and for sharing their passions with us. Be sure to read the full publication that features all fifteen of NYU's most influential students of 2011!

Kayla Santosuosso is the "sustainability queen" on campus. Although her major is in Middle Eastern studies, she is known for her involvement in all sustainability-related initiatives at NYU. As she stated to the Washington Square News, "if there's a sustainability project or environmentalist-related project on campus, I probably know about it, and chances are I might even have my hand in it some way."

Last week, we had the opportunity to ask Ms. Santosuosso a few questions about her experiences at NYU and the difficulties in persuading students to go "green."

What factors made you choose the NYU College of Arts and Science for your undergraduate education?

NYU was really one of the only schools I had considered at the time--I was eager for engagement beyond the classroom, and saw NYU as the one campus with the most opportunities. Similarly, CAS offered me the same kind of flexibility with my academics. I declared an English major when I first entered, but am graduating this Spring with a Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies degree. Being able to change my mind and explore different fields was a necessity. CAS allowed me to do that, but still afforded me a strong department and plenty of academic support when I arrived at a major.

Can you talk briefly about how you became involved in the NYU community and which engagements are most meaningful to you?

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I didn't feel particularly connected to the NYU community until I started getting involved with environmental and social activism on campus. It actually started on one particular day when I reached out to my Environmental Studies professor, Julianne Warren, and talked to her about some of the ideas I'd been throwing around. At the time I was trying to do an independent research project on composting in New York City, and Professor Warren (being the gracious educator that she is) offered to connect me to others on campus doing this work. A few weeks later I found myself on the Sustainability Task Force, with a bunch of composting, food, and waste experts talking about projects they wanted to do on campus. Needless to say, I never finished my research. But I did start meeting folks who were interested in the same work, and that's when everything really took off.

I eventually ended up working for the Office of Sustainability, under Jeremy Friedman (the Manager of Sustainability Initiatives) who has really empowered me and made me realize my potential to lead. This empowerment was crucial, because it led to me starting the Student Food Cooperative at NYU, which has undoubtedly been the most meaningful engagement. It's a community-based project which uses consensus-based decision making to test out a new economic model on campus, while seeking to provide the NYU community with local, organic, sustainably-sourced food. Not only is the group full of stellar, passionate students, but it's through this project that I've gotten to work with administration, like Beth Morningstar, who has also helped to make me feel valued as a leader at NYU.

This entire experience has been much more enriching than I could have possibly imagined. But I had to be proactive to get it, and I was very fortunate to get connected to the right people at the right time.

What roadblocks have you experienced while encouraging NYU students to lead a more sustainable lifestyle?

The first roadblock is apathy. It's hard getting folks to care about preventing climate change, much less feel responsible for it. We're constantly trying to communicate to students the urgency of action and behavioral change without seeming threatening, so we opt instead for "get involved with sustainability" because it's positive. But it's a challenge to use such passive language when you're nearly desperate to see immediate change.

The second is basically the typical New York City overstimulated lifestyle--no one has any time, and if they do, they never have enough to be totally committed. We're fortunate to have a solid group of students, faculty, and staff in our programs and support networks, but it's constantly a race against the clock. At the Office of Sustainability, for example, we're forced to pick and choose projects each year based on what we feel are the utmost priorities. Students often ask me: "why don't we have composting all over campus" or "shouldn't we have an Office of Sustainability at Abu Dhabi?". Of course, but we don't yet have the staff and support. In 2006, President Sexton took a bold, important step by signing the ACUPCC commitment to become a climate-neutral campus by 2040, and our office is totally committed to seeing it happen. But since then we haven't seen nearly enough support or commitment from senior university leadership to do so. I fully believe that sustainability is central to our mission as a university, and the real challenge is getting everyone on campus, from students to leadership, to agree.

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