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Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics


SUSTAINS: Ohio State's Sustainability Learning Community

Did you know that an AEDE staff member had a critical role in bringing an innovative sustainability learning program that operates outside of the classroom to Ohio State students?

SUSTAINS (Students Understanding Sustainability and Taking Action to Improve Nature and Society) is an Ohio State learning community targeted at undergraduates studying or interested in the environment.

Gina Hnytka, an AEDE staff member, is one of the founders of SUSTAINS and currently oversees programming for the community. At AEDE, Hnytka directs program management for the Environment, Economy, Development and Sustainability (EEDS) undergraduate major and supervises AEDE student services for undergraduate and graduate programs. 

How did SUSTAINS come to life?

Early in 2013, through her work with the EEDS program, Hnytka identified a need to provide opportunities for students to engage around issues of sustainability both inside and outside of the classroom. Students seemed eager for opportunities to pursue professional development, education, and other growth opportunities related to social, economic, and environmental sustainability, but they needed structure and a supportive community of peers, professionals, and faculty. The EEDS program was instrumental in supporting Hnytka’s proposal for this new initiative and in helping her to identify the group’s exhaustingly long, but meaningful acronym: SUSTAINS.

After garnering solid support from the community’s partners: Ohio State University Housing in the Office of Student Life, AEDE, the School of Environment and Natural Resources (SENR), and the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES), Hnytka conducted a small recruitment campaign for program launch in fall 2014. Students applied to the program and the result was a group of 15 fantastic students who became what she now refers to as the “roots,” or the foundation of the SUSTAINS learning community. These students were enrolled in a variety of major programs but all were engaged with sustainability offices and organizations on campus.

Fast forward to year two and there are now 40 students living in the SUSTAINS learning community. This includes 25 new members (or what Hnytka calls “shoots”) and 15 upper-class members, some of which returned to the group as mentors, or “roots,” in their second year in the program. Sixty percent of the participants are enrolled in majors outside of CFAES. This connection to the larger campus community allows the students to engage with partners from many disciplines in the context of sustainability. 

Aaron Moore, the Residence Hall Director for the building in which SUSTAINS is housed, is Hnytka’s co-lead for the program. Moore’s knowledge of co-curricular programming, effort in creating new opportunities, and dedication to the success of the students has been instrumental in growing and sustaining a high-quality program. 

So what does SUSTAINS do?

SUSTAINS is an intentional residential experience that focuses on the exploration of the delicate balance between environmental, economic, and social sustainability. Students must apply to the learning community and, if extended an offer to join the group, all live in the same residence hall to better facilitate peer-to-peer engagement and learning. All members move to campus a few days early and participate in an early arrival program, which includes a welcome dinner with faculty, staff, and students (and their families); a day-long retreat; and this past year, a service day at Stratford Ecological Center.

All first year SUSTAINS students enroll in a seminar class with Hnytka during the fall semester. During this seminar experience students participate in dialogue around current issues in sustainability and have the opportunity to interact with and learn from experts on specific topics. Participants are also required to create and present a project proposal at the end of fall semester. This project must focus on improving an existing sustainability initiative on campus or developing a new one. At the end of the semester, students present their project proposals and vote on which project the entire group will implement during spring semester 2016. Current proposals include a community garden in the North Residential District, a large scale community service day sponsored by SUSTAINS, a recycling education campaign targeting local elementary schools, and reusing K-Cups to grow seedlings which will be donated to area gardens and campus dining services. 

SUSTAINS also offers a robust calendar of events with a large number of engagement and growth opportunities for students. Over the past two years, the community has engaged with many professionals, agencies, and policymakers during a professional development trip to Baltimore and Washington D.C.; participated in the annual OEFFA conference; toured Blue Rock Station; completed community service hours with OSU Zero Waste, FLOW, Franklinton Gardens, OSU Wetlands, 4th Street Farms, Indianola Gardens, and other organizations; canoed the Olentangy with COMPAS; presented to Cardinal Turkson; learned about climate change and ice cores; hosted multiple dinner and dialogues with professionals and faculty…and the list goes on.

What began as a small project to support students has grown into a well-respected sustainability program for undergraduate students on OSU’s campus. If interested in learning more about SUSTAINS or collaborating with the group, please contact Gina Hnytka at

First and third images: SUSTAINS students during their Fall 2015 professional development trip to the Washington D.C. and Baltimore, MD region. Second image: Gina Hnytka.