The next generation of zero waste leaders: TRUE's summer 2020 internships

Published on: 
27 Aug 2020
Susie Westrup

Here at TRUE, we value education highly. It enables us to open opportunities and give the next generation of sustainability leaders the knowledge and tools they need to create a truly healthy, equitable and resilient world. One of our favorite educational experiences takes place each summer as the TRUE team is joined by intrepid college interns. This past summer, the TRUE team benefitted from the hard work of Allison Zhang and Sierra Garrity, who were selected in February with high hopes for a fun, collaborative, immersive internship at USGBC’s headquarters in Washington, DC.  As the pandemic hit and our work lives transitioned to keep everyone safe, USGBC HR staff, interns and intern managers quickly reimagined the program to become entirely virtual. Allison and Sierra’s summer internship with the TRUE program ended mid-August, but before they left to begin their senior years at the University of Richmond and Virginia Tech, respectively, I interviewed them to hear about their experience and their vision for our collective future.  

Despite wavering federal support of climate action and policy, the passion of young climate change activists around the world is inspiring. These are our future leaders, so building their capacity is our duty to ensure their commitment translates into action. In the spirit of thinking globally, acting locally, I challenged Allison and Sierra to teach their classmates something they learned this summer as they return to school. In Richmond, Allison’s friends should expect to learn more about zero waste and the many reasons why it is so important beyond its impact on the environment, but also on the social and health impacts that it has on human lives. Down the road in Blacksburg, Virginia, Sierra is going to teach her cohorts the importance of reducing waste. “I think it is truly important that people understand the implications waste has on the environment and how each person can contribute to it.” 

As their manager this summer, it was incredibly rewarding to mentor Allison and Sierra as the next generation of leaders. Their contributions to the TRUE program will be impactful for years to come, but the value our interns receive in exchange for their hard work is equally important to us. Internships give young adults a view into prospective career paths and what it takes to succeed in the real world. Both of our TRUE interns earned two professional credentials over the summer. They completed coursework and passed the TRUE Advisor and the LEED Green Associate. Sierra shared, “I feel that this summer’s internship prepared me more than any other internship could have. It not only provided me with critical professional certifications, but it helped me decide that I want to work in the green building industry. And it provided me with critical contacts that hopefully can help me make that dream a reality.” For Allison, a double major in business and environmental studies, “Interning at USGBC really solidified my career path in wanting to work in the environmental sector. I knew it was an interest of mine, but before I was being torn between the business and environmental fields. Now I know I can merge these two interests and find a career that combines both, and hopefully I can help businesses become more sustainable in my career.”  

As these young women prepare to finish college and begin their careers, I asked them to share what their vision is of a sustainable future, and if that vision changed based on their internship with TRUE? 

"My vision is of a world in which what we take from our environment we give right back. A clean future, with no non-renewable energy and no emission of any harmful byproducts. This has not particularly changed but I now understand more about how waste contributes to pollution and emissions and how zero waste can impact this." -Sierra Garrity 

"My vision is for the US to catch up with many European countries regarding waste and everyday practices. After studying abroad in Germany, it gave me a fresh perspective on what individuals can do to do their part in helping fight climate change. Basic practices like separating food waste from your trash and having glass recycling stations in each neighborhood would make a world of difference for all the waste that Americans throw in the dumpster. My view on waste has changed after interning with TRUE and has really put into perspective the importance of diverting waste from landfills."  - Allison Zhang 

As we send our students back to college, whether virtual or in-person, I challenge all green building and sustainability professionals to share your time with this group of students. They are nimble and eager to make a difference. Mentor, encourage or hire this next generation of sustainability leaders, and you’ll be grateful for the youthful inspiration you get in return.