While COVID-19 put study abroad programs on hold in 2020, three O’Neill students were forming a transatlantic connection with students in Rwanda.
“I’m a pretty big traveler—especially internationally—but as a sustainability student, it can be a bit conflicting,” admits Aspen Grieshaber, a Sustainable Management and Policy major. “A lot of that travel just isn’t sustainable.”
Especially during a pandemic. That’s why an IUPUI Honors College course in the fall 2020 semester caught her attention.
In 2020, the Rwanda Virtual Exchange Program let IUPUI students virtually connect with students at the University of Rwanda to learn about each other’s cultures while also examining how each country addressed Sustainable Development Goals created by the United Nations. The 17 SDGs were adopted by UN-member nations in 2015 to advance sustainability efforts worldwide.
Grieshaber wasn’t alone in her interest. It was an opportunity Halee Griffey couldn’t turn down either.
“As soon as I saw this course, I thought it was the perfect fit,” she says. Griffey is a double major, combining Sustainable Management and Policy with Global and International Studies. She’s also part of the Model UN at IUPUI. “When I heard UN SDGs, my eyes lit up and I did whatever I could to schedule the class into my semester.”
A similar course will be available in spring 2022, connecting students from IUPUI with those at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana. IUPUI participants come from majors across campus, helping to better prepare them for the impact sustainability will have on their future careers.
“If you’re a business student, you have to know about these things because investment firms will not invest if you don’t take precautionary measures to fight against climate change,” Grieshaber says. “We should teach every student about sustainability.”
Jonathon Lewis, who was also enrolled in the course, says that’s because sustainability touches every aspect of life. Lewis is in O’Neill’s Accelerated Master’s program, pursuing both undergraduate and graduate sustainability degrees. He also works as the energy intern for IUPUI’s Office of Sustainability.
“Sustainability is about meeting the needs of the present without jeopardizing the needs of the future,” he says. “The UN’s 17 goals encompass both sets of needs by addressing the three spheres of sustainability: social, environmental, and economic.”
Each team of students selected one of the 17 goals. They worked together to research how the United States and Rwanda are addressing that goal, how their approaches differ and why, and what outcomes each country has achieved thus far, and presented their findings in the Honors College Showcase in the spring of 2021.
“There are a lot of different factors in the United States that make these goals more challenging,” Lewis says. “Each country has its own contextual factors to consider.”
Grieshaber explains that while some may think America has an advantage in advancing sustainability, Rwanda is in a unique position to excel.
“Because Rwanda is still developing, they can create new infrastructure to meet their goals more easily,” she explains. “Meanwhile, our existing infrastructure has to be overhauled because it was built to accommodate fossil fuels.”
But sustainability is often impacted by much more than tangible elements, like infrastructure. A nation’s culture is also a driving force for which goals it prioritizes and how its leaders address those goals.
“Sustainability is not separate from society,” Griffey says. “What we value in society is a bit different than what Rwanda’s society may value. That’s where cultural understanding really comes into play—that’s how you understand why different nations do what they do.”
Griffey says the course’s dual focus on the combination of a cultural experience and an idea exchange helped open students’ eyes to the advances Rwanda is already making—and to the need here at home.
“I always thought I would become a diplomat and work abroad,” Griffey says. “But this project made me realize I don’t have to be abroad to make the biggest difference in the world. Making a difference in my local community is just as important.”