As we observe Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the UConn Office of Sustainability would like to recognize and celebrate the important contributions of the AAPI community in advancing sustainability and environmental justice.
The AAPI community is a rich tapestry of cultures, languages, and traditions, many of which have a deep connection to the natural world and a respect for the environment. From the indigenous communities of the Pacific Islands to ancient practices of sustainable agriculture in China, AAPI cultures have long recognized the interdependence of human health and well-being with the health of our planet.
Currently, AAPI activists and leaders are at the forefront of the fight for environmental justice, advocating for policies that prioritize the health and safety of marginalized communities and working to build a more just and sustainable world for all. Examples of these efforts include the work of organizations like the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, which has been fighting for environmental justice in AAPI communities for over two decades, and the Youth Climate Strike movement, which was founded by AAPI youth activists and has played a key role in raising awareness about the urgent need for climate action.
At UConn, we are committed to supporting and uplifting the voices of all communities in our efforts to build a more sustainable and just future. As we reflect on the significant contributions of the Asian and Pacific Islander community during this heritage month, we recommit ourselves to advancing sustainability and environmental justice for all.
Here we are – four years after starting school and two years after starting the Office of Sustainability. My name is Rachael Ruggiero and I am a graduating intern at the OS. There’s been so much that has happened in my time here and I don’t know if I can fit it onto one post, however, I’m going to give it a try.
I started at the Office of Sustainability not knowing much about what the office does on campus. I think some of my connections across campus helped me get the job. I was about to become president of the Residence Hall Association on campus, and I had a leadership position in my sorority, Delta Zeta. These other clubs that I am involved in helped shape the programs and events I worked on in the office.
Starting from day one I was nervous to see what the work environment would be. I also ended up being one of the new hires who couldn’t login and get started right away, you know, because there is always one. However, despite this, I feel like I was really able to hit the ground running, especially in the EcoCaptain Intern program. At the time of my hire, it was a new paid program, a collaboration between ResLife and our office. From my work with RHA, it was easy to understand how the EcoCaptain Interns could work with other ResLife officials and clubs in their area to make a difference. In the two years I worked with the program, it has grown so much. We are able to better understand what we want from our EcoCaptain Interns and vice versa. This means that when they start in the fall their transition is much quicker and we’ve been able to get to know the EcoCaptain Interns on a different level and better integrate them into the office.
Another project which has taken up a significant time at the office is working on communications. I worked a lot with the communications team thinking of new ways to give the office a brand that could continue even after I graduate. I think working on the communication team has been one of my biggest accomplishments at the office. Working with the other awesome team members, we now have a “brand” we can be confident in. It was important to me that the office create promotional material that I think I would want to see if I were scrolling on Instagram, and now in the future I’ll be excited to see what office is bringing to campus from a promotional standpoint. The office also brought in our staff Communication, Outreach, and Education Coordinator, Betsy Mortensen, in Spring 2022. She has been instrumental in getting new projects and ideas started.
My other jobs at the office surround helping with events such as the Haunted HEEP, Green Game Days, Earth Day Spring Fling, and more. I love working with all of the interns, past and present. The office has afforded me insight in how the University manages sustainability and has created connections for me that I’ll never take for granted. I was particularly lucky to sit on the search committee for the Director of the OS. That opportunity gave me some of the most valuable information for my own job searches in the future, even though I was sitting in the interviews instead of being interviewed. I would have never had that opportunity without working at the OS and now I feel like I’ve helped make a long lasting change here. I am also very excited to see the work Joe Fullerton will be doing in the future!
Lastly I just wanted to thank everyone I’ve worked with in the office these past two years, my boss, Patrick McKee, the amazing interns who graduated last year, Hope, Maizey, and Lauren, had taught me so much before they left and I wouldn’t be anywhere without them. The interns hired this year Amogh, Lilly, Sydney, Amanda, Allie and Leo have shown me that the office really can do anything, with all of their amazing ideas. I am also grateful for them because while there were so many projects our office is still working on, and I know we’re leaving everything in their very capable hands. I also want to thank the seniors graduating with me, Maggie, Erin, Chase, and Sam. I would be nowhere without them and they have become some of my greatest friends. I’ll never forget the impact that the Office of Sustainability had on my undergraduate career and hope to carry those lessons going forward.
Starting my internship in the Fall of 2021, I remember feeling so isolated. After a year online in which no friends were present and no clubs were active, I came back to a community that I felt estranged from. I walked to the Office of Sustainability on a sweltering summer day and the sweat on my palms wasn’t from the heat (if you catch my drift). I entered feeling so unsure and nervous if I belonged and Cherie Taylor, our Administrative Coordinator, turned to me from her window and said “Sam! I’m so glad you’re here with us!” No words ever impacted me like those. My trepidation evaporated with my sweat.
My time at the OS showed me what a sustainable and kind world looks like. Sustainability can be a difficult community to enter. If statistics and research has taught Gen-Z anything it’s that the climate crisis is immense and action needs to occur immediately and effectively. And I think we tend to act with righteousness with our actions. How can anyone speak up and feel welcome under such conditions? I have felt unwelcome and isolated personally in rooms with other environmental students (and I consider myself someone who knows a thing or two about sustainability at UConn).
But as I write this, I encourage you to beware of this single story. While there are certainly people here who will make you feel small and gaslight you into thinking you’re not sufficient, the staff and students at the Office of Sustainability are anything but. We have a small staff, three full-time staff members (one of which was only hired a month ago) and 1 part-time employee. Betsy, Patrick, and Cherie have kept the OS running without a director for the last two years. They are overwhelmingly kind, supportive and knowledgeable. Beyond being supportive of the interns and EcoCaptains, I have seen them aid other staff and faculty across the university in addition to the large numbers of students that approach the office. Never once have they made me feel like I was not enough. They are role models that I hope to emulate when I enter the “real world.”
Working on a team of likewise amazing interns has also been life changing. During my time at the Office of Sustainability, I have collaborated with the other interns on a number of projects including the submission of UConn’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory, UConn’s 6th & 7th Bee Campus USA Certification, UConn’s 9th & 10th Tree Campus USA Certification, Haunted HEEP & EDSF, AASHE STARS, EcoMadness, RecycleThon, etc. The other interns provide fresh perspectives and are always immensely passionate and helpful. It’s these people that make me feel hopeful for the future.
Beyond the OS, I have found other sustainability-oriented professionals across the university to be immensely passionate and helpful. Through my variety of projects, I had the opportunity to collaborate with a number of professionals ranging from Katie Milardo in Facilities Operations to Eileen McHugh in Planning & Design. I think this was the real driver of my change and growth in undergraduate. You learn many important skills such as professional communication and while these are important, I think what most influenced me was the second-hand passion that I received from these people. There are a number of people across UConn that work on the sustainability of our school and they go above and beyond for student interns at the OS – that’s why I named Eileen and Katie particularly.
Leaving UConn won’t be easy. I have roots here and to a degree graduation feels like someone is pulling me out like a weed. But my experience at the OS has prepared me to be transplanted at the University of Michigan and succeed. I think in grad school I want to be more intentional and appreciative of where I am – I have deep gratitude for my time at UConn and the OS and I hope to cultivate a community like the one I have interacted with here. As Mariah Carey once said, “Why ruin the journey by watching the clock and the ticking away of years?”