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Hello, Principia. Those of you who know me might be thinking, “Wait, didn’t she graduate in May?” Well, you’d be correct. I’m now happily employed as the Lands Stewardship Assistant for the Biology and Natural Resources Department, and as a STARS Program Officer for the Center for Sustainability. I guess you can’t get rid of me so easily!

So what’s the whole STARS thing? STARS is a self-audit for Principia College to benchmark and measure its sustainability performance. The audit uses a tool created by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) called the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS). The audit goes beyond the basic three legs of the “sustainability stool” — economy, ecology, equity — and makes the user dig a little deeper to demonstrate just how these ideas are being put into action at his or her college or university.

The audit treats all institutions equally — little schools (like Principia!) have the same opportunities as major universities to rack up sustainability points. When a criterion asks for quantitative data, it’s usually in the form of percentages. Other questions are in a yes or no format such as, ‘Does your institution have something in place that satisfies this criterion?’ If not, no points. If yes, points. If the school fulfills the whole criterion, they get all of the points.

As I work through the audit, there are definitely areas where Principia could do much better. But there are also areas that Principia is incredibly good at. In fact, in some areas we’re so good that we don’t even know that it isn’t “normal.” It’s just how we do things. One of these areas relates to the “campus as a living laboratory” — a place where students can put theory into practice. While I already knew that Principia is pretty much all about putting theory into practice, I was excited to find that the number and diversity of projects that students initiate and carry out on their own was more than enough to get Principia full points on that particular criterion.

In fact, when I attended the 2014 AASHE Conference in Portland last month and met other STARS auditors from big universities, I found that Principia has already accomplished more than many of these much larger institutions! Moreover, the projects happening at the bigger schools are more likely to be initiated by staff and faculty, whereas at Principia, it’s the students taking on the projects themselves, from planning to implementation and evaluation.

While other colleges and universities have done some pretty amazing projects, Principia students have done a wider variety of projects. This audit recognizes the multidisciplinary scope of sustainability and cares more about having a variety of projects than it does about the scope of a single project or how much money was dedicated to it.

To get full points, an institution must have done or be doing at least one project in 10 or more different areas (e.g., air and climate, dining services and food, energy, waste, water, purchasing). I took one look at the list I had compiled on the projects done here and knew that Principia was going to get full points (I did actually count, but only after I had laughed in triumph).

So what are some of these student-led initiatives? They include the apiary (our beehives), aquaponics, permaculture garden, Principia Food Forest, recycling and composting in the dorms, campus book recycling program, Earth Day Festival, Sustainability Weekend, conducting residential energy audits, hosting speakers and films, volunteering for river clean-ups, the Alton Farmer’s Market, etc., and advocating for a variety of innovations like water bottle filling stations (i.e., getting rid of bottled water!), compostable Pub-ware, renewable energy projects, locally-sourced food, and so much more. Most of these projects are organized through the Sustainability Club and the campus eco heads, with support from the Center for Sustainability and/or the Lands Stewardship Office.

Where does all this innovation and self-motivation come from? Perhaps our awesomeness stems from our innately caring community and from our “no limitations” attitude and beliefs.

You can find out more about how Principia’s sustainability performance rates when the STARS audit is complete. Stay tuned! In the meantime, want to know more? Check out the Principia College Center for Sustainability Facebook page.