Breaking boundaries: How students are leading the charge for sustainable change

Reimagining architecture with the natural environment in mind. Translating the dense, complex federal funding process for local governments. Researching the social implications of carbon offsets. These are a few projects and passions of students who received a special set of cords during University of Michigan’s 2023 spring commencement for their dedication to sustainability.

Since 2020, students engaged in sustainability activities across campus can collect points that could earn them entrance into the Excellence in Sustainability Honors Cord program. 

Critical to the program’s popularity and success: encouraging students to go beyond their classroom learning and use campus as a living-learning laboratory.

“It connects all these different experiences across the University of Michigan, like courses, volunteer work and student organizations, together into a holistic narrative,” said Riley List, a 2023 U-M graduate and sustainability honors cord recipient.

A partnership between Student Life Sustainability and Joe Trumpey, associate professor of art in the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, and associate professor of natural resources and of the Program in the Environment in the School for Environment and Sustainability, the program recognizes students for their sustainability work through academics and extracurriculars with a student-made honors cord, a physical representation of their yearslong commitment, passion, and positive impact. 

List is one of seven U-M students who shared their sustainability journey with the Student Life Communication team. The students’ varying experiences reveal the interdisciplinary nature of sustainability at U-M, with their backgrounds and interests ranging from automotive technology suppliers and local governments to sustainable architecture and Ann Arbor businesses such as Zingerman’s and Vertex Coffee.

Sustainability is broad, housing many topics and opportunities for individuals like List and others to carve out their own niche and contribute to broader efforts. While all seven students’ experiences vary, they are tied together through their desire to make a positive impact on our world—and the Excellence in Sustainability Honors Cords they earned. 

“It’s constantly going through your life and thinking, ‘How am I impacting the world around me?’ And how can I make that a positive impact rather than a negative impact?” shared Anthony Marx, a 2023 sustainability honors cord recipient.

Meet some of the students who donned the Excellence in Sustainability Honors Cord at the Spring 2023 commencement.

Meet Katie Economou

Katie Economou

​​Katie Economou isn’t new to the sustainability scene. Before arriving in Ann Arbor, she received her bachelor’s degree in public policy and international relations from the University of Delaware in 2021, taking her one step closer to her goal of improving public policy with the environment in mind.

Her next destination: The University of Michigan, which provided the infrastructure and tools

to help her continue blending her interests of sustainability and local government into a career. 

It didn’t take Economou long to make a difference. 

“It’s complicated for local governments, federally recognized tribes, communities, and nonprofits in the sustainability space to access federal funding because the information can be so uneven,” said Katie Economou, who received her Master’s degree in urban and regional planning from Taubman College of Architecture.

Her solution: create an easily accessible resource that could quickly cut through the clutter. As a research associate and Michigan local government sustainability aide through the Graham Sustainability Institute, Economou took over the Investment Infrastructure and Jobs Act (IIJA) tracker and created an extended version that includes funding and tax credit opportunities from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). 

The IIJA and IRA Tracker provides detailed information of federal sustainability funding opportunities to Michigan communities such as local governments, research institutions, and federally recognized tribes.

“I try to make everything as digestible as possible so they can start applying to, and hopefully implementing, the funding to create better sustainability in Michigan,” said Economou.

The tracker marked Economou’s most recent efforts at U-M to help local governments working toward more sustainable practices. Previously, Economou was selected for the Catalyst Leadership Circle (CLC) Fellowship through the Graham Sustainability Institute. 

Each CLC Fellow is assigned to a city, town, or township in Michigan to work on sustainability projects. Economou strategized with Meridian Township, the third largest municipality in the Lansing–East Lansing area, on how to meet different climate goals from the state of Michigan’s MI Healthy Climate Plan. Through a communications project with the township’s leadership, Economou learned how to communicate principles of sustainability that resonated with communities and decision makers. Those skills continue to inform her ongoing work.

Working in sustainability can feel overwhelming, but Economou said working with local governments on actionable projects such as the IIJA and IRA Tracker helps her realize the difference she is making. “We always receive emails thanking us for the funding tracker. It’s nice to see that it really is helping so many different people,” Economou said.

Meet Chase Dautrich

Chase Dautrich

Chase Dautrich believes in breaking the old-fashioned belief that sustainability is limited to the natural environment. Choosing sustainable behaviors is possible in every industry and Dautrich wants to leverage sustainability to solve a food industry challenge.

“When you take into consideration that around 11% of Americans experience hunger, and then you have the other statistic of 30-40% of food being wasted, there’s a really cool circular solution to start to fix both societal problems,” Dautrich explained.

Dautrich spent much of his free time supporting food sustainability while at U-M. He became a member of both the Food Recovery Network and U-M Sustainable Food Program (UMSFP), and spent one summer away from Ann Arbor in Philadelphia, where he interned for a food bank during the summer of 2020.

“It was really special to be in that space during the COVID-19 pandemic when getting food to people in need was such a pressing challenge,” Dautrich said. “I realized then that I loved being in a project management and sustainability-focused workspace.”

By leaning into these skills, Dautrich became president of UMSFP in his final year at U-M, a role that helped him understand the importance of soft skills while working in sustainability. 

“It was a lot of facilitating conversations where I realized the goal is not for me to win it out with having the best idea; it’s about guiding a conversation and listening to what people are saying in real time,” Dautrich shared.

Dautrich received his Bachelor of Science in environmental studies from the U-M College of Literature Science and the Arts (LSA). He plans to continue his sustainability work at Ernst & Young in New York, helping companies understand and prepare for the future of sustainability regulation. 

Meet Talya Soytas

Talya Soytas once spent an entire week collecting her high school classmates’ plastic bottles. Why? She wanted to show the gravity of their plastic consumption.

“I had a great geography teacher that supported our sustainability projects,” Soytas said. “We collected the plastic bottle waste again a couple months later. Seeing the decrease in consumption made me realize there’s an impact to be made.”

Soytas’ passion for the environment led her to seek out sustainability opportunities at U-M, where she soon discovered the Campus Farm at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. She worked at the farm through her four years at U-M, starting as a staff member caring for the plants, to closing out her senior year as a lead manager on the team.

In between classes and time on the farm, Soytas helped found Theta Alpha Psi, a multi-disciplinary environmental fraternity, in February 2021. During the fraternity’s first semester, Soytas oversaw community initiatives and handled local partnerships centered on social and environmental sustainability. 

It’s during this time, Soytas said, that her view of sustainability began to shift. She had always seen sustainability as something grounded in the natural environment, from the Campus Farm’s soil to the earth’s water that may, one day, be destined to hold the water bottles she once collected.

“Theta Alpha Psi introduced me to different facets of sustainability,” Soytas said. “We would always reiterate what the social implication was of what we were discussing.”

Through these experiences, Soytas found herself gravitating toward the challenges that come with urban planning and policy-related sustainability—two of sustainability’s many, varied dimensions. This complexity has led some to call sustainability a “wicked problem,” where there is no easy or clear solution. Soytas knew she wanted to be part of the solution, or solutions, to this societal wicked problem.

Soytas’ desire to find answers for urban planning and policy-related sustainability led her to attain a Bachelor of Arts in the Program in the Environment and economics. Through her experiences at U-M, Soytas learned to view sustainability with a holistic approach.

“From my perspective, sustainability is creating practices in spaces where the health of the environment and the health and economic and social well being of the people can be supported for this generation and more generations to come,” Soytas expressed.

Meet Stephanie Rosas

Stephanie Rosas

In the world of architecture, the built environment and natural surroundings are in constant dialogue, each influencing the other. To create effective designs, architects carefully consider the environment in which they are building to ensure harmonious integration of the structure into its surroundings.

Stephanie Rosas noticed a lack of conversation around the natural environment within her architecture courses and turned the conversational void into an opportunity to incorporate sustainability into her studies.

“I particularly noticed these huge water tanks on the roofs of almost every single house – they become a part of the house and a part of the architecture,” Stephanie Rosas said, reflecting on her study abroad experience in Mexico City.

During the program, she studied the way water impacted Mexico City in terms of architecture and the relationship people living there have with water. This heightened Rosas’ passion for sustainability and architecture, leading her to her recently-earned Bachelor of Science degree from the Taubman College of Architecture.

“I am interested in merging both the built and natural environment,” Rosas said. “It’s a developing conversation, but being able to research and look at architecture and environmentalism at the same time, and building with both in mind, is something I hope to do one day.” 

Rosas’ involvement in sustainability at U-M is as multi-dimensional as her academic pursuits; she also participated in student groups such as the Student Sustainability Coalition. Through this experience, she discovered that sustainability is not only about the environment, but also related to social and cultural issues. 

“You can’t solve one without thinking about the other, and you can’t advocate for one and not advocate for the other,” Rosas explained. She discussed the challenges that arise in the sustainability field and how they have helped her to grow as a person.

“One issue is that a lot of times in spaces of sustainability the conversation is being led by white people. Being a person of color, that’s been a major issue of trying to represent people that aren’t in the space, but also having the pressure to be the person to represent those people. I’ve learned how to navigate situations like that.”

Meet Riley List

Riley List

Riley List lets his personal mission—promoting social justice and sustainability—drive his decisions, from his personal life to his future career. He has a former professor to thank. 

“Something that a professor recently shared with me is the importance of having reminders for yourself, through the people that you spend time with and the things that you do, to help cultivate your mission,” said List, a recent U-M graduate who gained a Bachelor of Arts in organizational studies from LSA. “My mission is to promote social justice and sustainability. I don’t want to lose sight of that.” 

A tangible reminder of his mission sat within List’s eyesight during the Spring 2023 commencement, as he wore an Excellence in Sustainability Honor Cord dyed with indigo from the Campus Farm and goldenrod from Matthaei Botanical Gardens.

List’s honors cord reflects the culmination of his sustainability journey at U-M, though his introduction to the field was not in academia. Instead, his first lessons came through joining sustainability committees in LSA Student Government and creating a draft sustainability module for new student orientation.

List notes this passion for sustainability centers around his love for people and the planet.

After exploring the field outside the classroom, List decided to add sustainability into his studies. During the 2022-23 academic year, List researched the use of carbon offsets and their implications for social justice.

Carbon offsets allow institutions to fund greenhouse gas removal/sequestration projects elsewhere as a means to “offset” their carbon footprint. Offsets are often controversial because they enable institutions to appear sustainable without reducing their own direct emissions. The offsets market remains highly murky, with many projects potentially ineffective at reducing emissions generally. 

“It touches on everything from indigenous rights to the inherent lack of accountability of the current system of carbon offsets. Accountability varies widely, there are more rigorous certificates of carbon offset issuers, and then there are less rigorous ones. It’s an unregulated space in a lot of ways at the moment,” List explained.

List’s interest in the intersectionality between environmental economics, policy, and justice are leading him to further his education as he plans to go to law school for environmental law. 

Meet Maggie Zeh

Skiing, hiking, and spending time in the mountains in Colorado led Maggie Zeh to have a deep appreciation for the environment, which led to incorporating sustainability into her studies at U-M and, ultimately, in her career.

A conversation with a friend about an environmental consulting club at Cornell University sparked Zeh’s interest in joining something similar at U-M. Zeh searched through Maize Pages, assuming an environmental consulting club already existed. Her search turned up empty. Then, it generated an idea. 

With extra time on her hands during the pandemic, Zeh founded the Environmental Consulting Organization at U-M. This organization aims to show local Ann Arbor businesses that they can use sustainable practices, regardless of what field they are in.

“I’ve always been interested in combining natural science and biology with more social science and business,” Zeh said. Zeh searched for students with similar interests to help her make this organization a reality on campus, and eventually found enough people to make it official.

“We wanted to work with local businesses to increase sustainability initiatives because we thought it would be cool to help other parts of our Ann Arbor community,” Zeh explained.

Among the Environmental Consulting Organization’s past local business partners: Bivouac, Zingerman’s, and Vertex Coffee. For each, a team of students provided the businesses with counsel and support on sustainability projects ranging from water management and zero waste challenges to reusable container initiatives.

Due to the success of the Environmental Consulting Organization, the student-led club now has an application and interview process each semester for new students wanting to join. “It’s gratifying to see the growth of the organization and that it will persist after my time here,” said Zeh.

Zeh’s experience helping businesses implement sustainable practices leads her to recognize the importance of sustainability at a professional level, while her love for the environment guides sustainability in her personal life.

“The important thing about sustainability,” Zeh, a recent LSA graduate explains, “is making it accessible through all fields and making sure that future generations can enjoy the planet as we have. It’s about promoting lifestyles, both personal and systemic, that protect the environment and all of our necessary resources.”

Meet Anthony Marx

Anthony Marx

Anthony Marx became a sustainability advocate by chance. 

Marx, initially undeclared in his college major, stumbled upon an introductory level sustainability course his freshman year on climate change. After finishing the course, Marx realized sustainability would be one of the most important issues of his lifetime and felt an urge to get involved.

The question of “what do I want to study” shifted to “how do I want to contribute to this space?” After a business and sustainability course, Marx understood where he could effectively contribute his skills to the sustainability space. 

Marx acknowledges his academic advisor Jaime Langdon for recommending different organizations and programs to help him find his own path in sustainability, recently earning a Bachelor of Arts in the Program in the Environment from LSA. “That was a silver-lining to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Marx said, explaining the pandemic-driven disruptions created more time to explore different organizations, fellowships and clubs at U-M.

“I was on the student advisory board for MDining, and Dining is one of the more receptive units within the University for sustainability. They are great champions for it,” Marx shared. “U-M students are recognizing sustainability can be paired with any major, because in the long term sustainability is going to be integrated in every job and in our way of life.”

Marx held a sustainability internship with BorgWarner Inc., an automotive technology supplier based in Auburn Hills, Mich., communicating their 2022 sustainability report and improving key performance metrics such as carbon emissions. He recently accepted a position to continue his work with BorgWarner. His hope for his post-graduation role: To increase the company’s positive impact on the environment.

“I think recognizing the work that our students have done for sustainability within their time at the university is really important and I’m proud to be able to wear the honors cord at graduation,” Marx said. 

“It’s a great physical reminder of what I’ve accomplished already in this space.”