For more than a decade, the Office of Sustainability has provided Virginia Tech students opportunities for rapid personal and professional growth through its high-impact internship program.

A cohort is introduced each year consisting of sophomore through fifth-year students from diverse areas of studies. Their broad range of backgrounds, united by a common interest in sustainability, allows them to expand their understanding of the interdisciplinary issue of climate change. In addition to the significant role this program plays in student growth and development, it also contributes to the implementation of Virginia Tech’s Climate Action Commitment.

During the 2022-23 academic year, the Office of Sustainability worked with 23 students split between four teams focusing on energy, water, waste, and food. The teams partnered with units across the university to tackle sustainability challenges.

Energy team

The energy team helps reduce energy use on and off the Blacksburg campus and decrease Virginia Tech's carbon footprint.

The 2022-23 team partnered with the Office of Energy Management to work on a LEED Operations and Maintenance certification. Interns assisted with waste audits to understand waste streams within the buildings, air quality testing, occupant comfort surveys, and peer-to-peer education on the importance of building efficiency and operational sustainability.

In addition to this project, the team conducted an extensive survey of student energy habits - identifying value-action gaps and theorizing potential solutions to any barriers that may be preventing students from engaging in sustainable behaviors.

Student interns Cameron Hadley, Sean Murray, and Renee Sarmiento present their findings on student energy habits at Climate Action Commitment Day. Photo by Emily Vollmer for Virginia Tech.

Water team

The water team helps improve a variety of site, infrastructure, and water challenges on the Blacksburg campus.

In collaboration with university partners, the 2022-23 team started the process of developing a water management plan for Virginia Tech. Members analyzed existing water use data, both current and historic, to identify potential water management solutions.

Additionally, the team worked with the Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities’ BUILDS team to map out the locations of water bottle refilling stations across the Blacksburg campus to assist with communicating station locations and identifying potential future station locations. 

Water team interns Ashton Taylor (left) and Michelle Millirons (middle) speak with visitors at the Blacksburg Farmers Market about calculating their water footprint. Photo by Gia Ha for Virginia Tech.

Waste team

The waste team helps reduce the amount of waste that is produced at Virginia Tech.

The 2022-23 team managed the soft plastics collection program on the Blacksburg campus. The interns developed and implemented this program after learning that soft plastics are the number one contaminant resulting in damage to machinery in the recycling process.

During the spring, the team hosted a sustainable fashion show during Earth Week. With a focus on “fast fashion,” the team sought to educate the university community about the impacts of the industry on the environment.

“Sustainability is my biggest passion,” said Jules Cerato, a senior environmental conservation major. “It can be hard to be 100 percent sustainable and zero-waste as a college student, but some easy steps that I take are bringing my own reusable water bottle and utensils to campus and helping my dad compost in our garden back at home.”

Waste team interns tour the Recycling and Disposal Solutions facility. Photo by Emily Vollmer for Virginia Tech.
Sustainable Fashion Show rehearsal. Photo by Emily Vollmer for Virginia Tech.

Food team

The food team helps assess the sourcing, consumption, and disposal of food on Virginia Tech's Blacksburg campus and within the dining halls.

The 2022-23 team researched hydroponics systems and successfully secured grant funding to install a system at The Market to help reduce produce purchasing costs.

During the spring semester, the team published a magazine about sustainable eating. The magazine detailed information on the intersection of sustainability and food, including local issues and solutions as well as food systems, agricultural practices, foraging, and more.

“Hunger is a huge problem across the globe and so making even just a small difference in our local food system feels like a great start to creating lasting change,” said John Huston, a fifth-year ecological restoration major.

Student interns Kloe Rife and John Huston tour the Hale Community Garden in Blacksburg. Photo by Emily Vollmer for Virginia Tech.

Establishing a culture of sustainability

Students in the internship program help support a culture of sustainability by providing peer-to-peer education and enacting tangible, sustainable change on the Blacksburg campus.

“Working with the students is the best part of my job,” said Emily Vollmer, sustainability coordinator. “They have such a passion for sustainability and an eagerness to create lasting change on campus. My favorite part of the program is seeing the students’ confidence grow as they move through this program. I know they’re going to be amazing sustainability professionals and I hope that they’ll reflect positively on this program throughout the early stages of their career.”

The 2023-24 cohort will begin this fall to continue the legacy of previous Office of Sustainability interns.

Written by Trisha Porter

Share this story