Activism breeds on college campuses, and this generation of college students has taken the environment as their cause. Student groups that support an environmentally and socially responsible lifestyle are popping up on campuses across the country, and a recent article in BusinessWeek magazine proclaimed the green movement this generation’s next big youth movement, putting it on par with the Civil Rights Movement and antiwar demonstrations of the 1960s.
Some graduating senior haves even take a pledge, which says they will consider the social and environmental repercussions of any job they take.
Sarah Allen was one of those seniors who signed the Graduation Pledge of Social and Environmental Responsibility. Her first job after graduating from Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., in 2004, was working at a textbook publishing company. The job paid the bills and helped her make ends meet, but it didn’t have any form of social or moral importance.
After nine months there, she quit.
"I wanted a career that I felt was meaningful and doing something good for somebody or something that I believed in," Allen said.
And while she struggled to find a new job, she knew she did the right thing.
The pledge states: "I pledge to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job I consider and will try to improve these aspects of any organizations for which I work."
Created at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., in 1987, the pledge is experiencing a strong resurgence in its 20th anniversary year as more schools are incorporating it into their commencement ceremonies and today’s graduating seniors are becoming more aware of their responsibility as citizens of the world.
"The pledge encapsulates what my passions are and my motivation for getting my education, period and for my work," said Samantha Staley, a recent Stanford graduate, who took a job with a community watershed council, where she will be doing environmental education in the community. "Both the social and environmental sustainability values are already something I live with, so (taking the pledge) was kind of a no-brainer."
The pledge operates on three levels, said Neil Wollman, a senior fellow at the Peace Studies Institute and a psychology professor at Manchester College in North Manchester, Ind., which is now the pledge headquarters.
The first is the individual level, where one person takes into consideration what values are important to him or her.
The second is at the education level.
"If it comes to that level it’s saying education is not just about skills and knowledge but how applied values are a part of that," Wollman said.
And the final level is the societal one. "If enough people do this, you might have some real influence," Wollman said.
And therein lies the goal of the pledge: to encourage enough students to consider their values when they are looking for jobs, upon accepting jobs and once they are embedded in the workforce. The idea is that if enough people take small steps within their companies, the little changes will add up to a society that is more socially and environmentally aware.
"Some people are concerned with more than the bottom line, with more than how much money they’ll make," Wollman said. "There’s other things that make you happy on the job and make you feel good about what you’re doing."
Past graduates who have signed the pledge have turned down job opportunities if they didn’t think the company upheld the values the pledge represented. Others have taken a different route by accepting jobs at these companies and working from within to make changes, by starting recycling programs and other similar practices.
"You define it for you," Wollman said. "People can have different perspectives, but the basic idea goes beyond that."
The pledge has grown vastly from its conception at Humboldt State 20 years ago. In the first few years, only about 30 small colleges participated. Now the numbers have skyrocketed to include more than 100 universities internationally, including more than just small liberal arts colleges. Big research schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, both in Cambridge, Stanford and others all participate in the pledge.
For students, the pledge is a symbol of what they hold true. It’s a way for them to constantly remind themselves that if they don’t agree with a certain practice, they have the responsibility to do something about it.
For Marguerite Harden, a recent graduate from Towson University, in Maryland, this means spending lots of time researching all the companies where she is applying for jobs.
"The pledge encourages (researching) just to make sure (the company) has sound environmental policies and ethics," she said. "I think researching is the most important part because it will help avoid future conflict."
And even if she does run into a conflict in her eventual job, Harden believes the pledge will constantly remind her to do something about it.
"As a person this is something I would do anyway, so I guess you have to realize that change can be slow," Harden said.
Pledge signers, however, don’t want to come across as hopeless optimists. They know they will face challenges in the workplace or be in situations that conflict with their ideals and the values of the pledge.
"One challenge is that often idealistic graduating seniors find that high paying jobs aren’t necessarily aligned with the kind of work we’d like to be doing," Staley said, adding there is a dichotomy between taking a job that pays well to pay the bills and taking a job that aligns with personal values but may pay much less.
Heidi Gross, a Manchester College graduate, experiences a different challenge in her job with the residential program at a boarding school for students gifted in the math and science fields in Illinois. Because she’s in a teaching environment, she lives out the pledge by educating the students she’s in charge of about social and environmental issues.
In the past she’s taken her students on field trips to vegetarian restaurants, second-hand stores and environmental conferences. She’s implemented a recycling program and works closely with the school’s environmental club.
And she refuses to take her students to Wal-Mart.
"If the kids ask me, I say I don’t go there, and then we have a good conversation about why I don’t," she said.
The pledge isn’t just for tree-hugging, organic-food eating, hippie types, either, a point Anastasia Semienko, a recent MBA graduate from MIT, thinks is really important to make when discussing the pledge.
"I think primarily it’s becoming more important for every individual to be a good global citizen," she said, and while the pledge is a great way to encourage that in students, the future of the planet is the responsibility of more than just the pledge signers.
"Today I think there’s more awareness of how business can benefit the environment," Semienko said. "The grad pledge is really important because it helps remind students they have not only a moral obligation, they have a greater opportunity to make a difference in these areas."
Harden agrees: "I hate to make the pledge sound like it’s really pushing activism because I think the pledge is just pushing awareness. It’s just being aware of what you’re doing and what job you’re fulfilling. It’s not asking you to chain yourself to a tree."
And if nothing else, by raising awareness, the pledge leaves the students with hope that slowly, but surely they can affect change.
"Having the pledge at Towson and at commencement gave me a hope that these progressive ideals were spreading across the country," Harden said.
© 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.