"We’re not stopping"

It's been an eventful year at AB-Tech. Not long after Betty Young ended her brief and controversial tenure as president by announcing her resignation in March. Russ Yelton, who had founded the college's Global Institute for Sustainable Technology, left for unrelated reasons. GIST has been a key player in AB-Tech's efforts at encouraging sustainability both on campus and off. Now GIST may face more upheaval, as current director Leslee Thornton will soon step down.

Recycle it: Members of AB-Tech's Students for a Sustainable Campus during a recent on-campus recycling drive. Photo by Jonathan Welch

Sometimes, when the president's chair at a college is empty, administrators concentrate on finding a new chief and pursue few new projects. But Bear Reel, president of Students for a Sustainable Campus, says the campus' sustainability efforts are advancing full-force.

"That was a pleasant surprise for us; we didn't think that was going to happen. It was rumored that [interim President Richard Mauney] wasn't going to make any decisions, that he was just house-sitting," Reel recalls. "But he is moving forward on a lot of initiatives. We're very happy with the way things are going."

Requiring large facilities and no small amount of maintenance, colleges can guzzle significant amounts of energy and create substantial waste. In its efforts to make the campus more sustainable, AB-Tech is increasing recycling, has abandoned Styrofoam cups, now composts all waste from its culinary departments and is pursuing a variety of energy-saving measures. GIST, which is based primarily on the Enka campus, has received $354,000 in federal funding through 2010. The N.C. Department of Water Conservation has also given GIST a $62,500 grant to build rain gardens on campus so as to deal with water runoff issues.

"One of the criteria for the next president is going to be their commitment to sustainability: We're not stopping," Thornton tells Xpress. "We want to increase recycling. There's also a strong educational element to our efforts. Last year GIST offered 12 classes, this semester it's 27. This [kind of training] is where green jobs are coming from."

All carpentry and construction students now learn sustainable building techniques, and electronic engineering students help install photovoltaic panels, Thornton notes, as part of the college's commitment to training "green collar" workers. A recently installed windmill was erected by students, and there are plans for a bus shelter with solar panels on the roof.

Rallying AB-Tech's students to help with sustainability projects outside of class can be a challenge, Reel observes. Unlike at four-year colleges, students at AB-Tech don't live on campus and often have to work jobs on top of their class load. There's little time leftover for extracurricular activism.

"Our demographic is very different: We have mothers, fathers, people right out of high school; we have people doing career changes," Reel says. "[For] a lot of the students, class is what they're [doing in] their free time; they're missing sleep to do homework. We have to take that into account and look at how sustainability fits into every moment. The students at AB-Tech may not be able to devote as much time as four-year students, but if they see what's going on and know it's there, they'll get excited about it."

GIST has entered into a number of collaborations with local communities and organizations. The institute recently renovated Marshall Senior Center to be energy efficient, and a similar project is planned for Black Mountain. The institute has also helped to construct a cob building at Evergreen Charter School.

GIST is also setting up a shared parking lot with Mission Hospital. "They need parking and so do we; it's a natural win-win," Thornton says. While most people don't think of parking lots as green, she acknowledges, this one will be. "We're using exclusively native species of trees and plants. These are more drought resistant and prevent runoff and soil erosion — both major problems that most parking lots contribute to."

And there are plenty of other, less noticeable, steps toward sustainability, Reel says. Solar hot water heaters and motion-sensitive light fixtures, for instance, will help to reduce the campus' power consumption. And improved recycling efforts have already eliminated the need for a dumpster and reduced garbage expenditures by $24,000.

"Sustainability and greener initiatives don't have to cost money; they can save money," Reel emphasizes. "That's the whole point of sustainability — it's how to make things better for the whole picture. It's not 'oh we have to be green now, so we have to spend all this money.' It's about how these things all work together to save money for the college and be better for the environment and students."

Thornton believes that the college's commitment to sustainable practices — through several administrations — has played an important role.

"Fortunately, I think we're ready to go," she says. "We wouldn't be here without AB-Tech. I don't want to steal anyone's thunder, but we're going to be announcing some big stuff in the near future. We're not stopping."

But Reel did note that she was "surprised" by Thornton's resignation. Mona Cornwell, the college's communications director, says that AB-Tech's commitment to its sustainability efforts remains vigorous.

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