High-energy student pursues low-energy solutions
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Reduce, reuse, and recycle aren’t just words in Kelsey Zlevor’s vocabulary but choices she exercises every day. Before heading out the door, she turns down her thermostat, shuts off lights, fills her reusable bottle with tap water, then walks or bikes to class. If it’s a Saturday morning, you’ll find her at the Iowa City farmers market filling her reusable grocery bag with fresh produce.
Zlevor, a UI senior environmental sciences major from La Grange Park, Illinois, is doing what she can to make the biggest impact on campus by leaving behind the smallest footprint. In the past four years, she has spearheaded many sustainable campus initiatives, including tray-less dining, water-bottle filling stations, the replacement of trash cans with recycling bins, and energy conservation.
“I'd like to think I've left the campus a greener place than when I found it, and I think these projects have helped students get involved with their university and understand their impact on it,” she says. “I've had the great opportunity to engage a lot of students who were unengaged previously, and that's what I'm most happy about.”
Initially an English major, Zlevor didn’t expect to spearhead such large initiatives when she entered the UI. But after taking professor Art Bettis’ Introduction to Environmental Science course her freshman year, for which she helped to remove invasive species from Hickory Hill Park, she switched majors and enrolled in the Sustainability Certificate program.
Her favorite classes are those that get her out of the classroom, both mentally and physically. “When you understand the immediate value of your education, it's exciting and easier to commit to it,” she says. Craig Just’s Introduction to Sustainability course, for instance, put a premium on looking outside of the university to ask, What is being done in the community? and How can students can get involved?
These classes, she says, helped her to develop links between course content and the ways it could be applied in the world. They also showed her that environmentalism “leads to better relationships and better communities” in addition to benefiting the natural world.
Zlevor joined the University of Iowa Student Government as the sustainability liaison her sophomore year to apply what she’d learned in her classes to real-world situations. Her first project was the UI Water Fountain Project, which outfitted the Iowa Memorial Union with an automatic filtered water fountain to reduce consumption of bottled water. There are now 25 of these bottle-fill stations on campus, and they’ve saved over 475,000 plastic bottles from the landfill to date.
Zlevor also founded and continues to coordinate the Greek Energy Challenge, an annual challenge among the Greek houses on campus that encourages students to reduce their consumption of energy.
“Kelsey's enthusiasm for sustainability and her desire to make a difference have led to her long list of accomplishments outside the classroom,” says Liz Christiansen, the director of the UI Office of Sustainability, where Zlevor serves on a presidential charter for sustainability to make sustainability a general education requirement. “I can hardly name another student who has taken such advantage of all the opportunities to volunteer and become involved.”
Zlevor, who will soon be attending the University of Oregon’s graduate program in Community and Regional Planning/Sustainable Development, credits Christiansen and other UI staff and faculty for her success, noting that they were always receptive to her ideas and made the sky the limit.
“That's what makes the UI such a special place to me. As a student with an idea, when I approached faculty and staff, I was always treated as a colleague,” she says. “Instead of seeing me as lacking in experience, everyone took my opinion seriously and genuinely wanted to help me see it through. That's pretty unbelievable when you consider how big the school is, and how other schools operate.”