Penn State Behrend earns silver STARS rating for sustainability achievements

Sherri "Sam" Mason stands on a boardwalk on a Wintergreen Gorge trail.

Sherri "Sam" Mason is the director of sustainability at Penn State Behrend. "We all have a role in sustainability," she said. "It's the domain of every school at this college, and every person who works and learns here."

Credit: Penn State Behrend

ERIE, Pa. — Penn State Behrend has earned a silver rating from STARS, the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System. The designation, which is valid for three years, is a measure of the college’s work toward environmental, social and economic sustainability.

Penn State Behrend previously held a bronze rating from STARS, which is a program of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. No other college in northwest Pennsylvania holds a STARS rating.

The college’s initial rating, in 2020, provided a baseline assessment of Behrend’s sustainability work, which was viewed through five primary categories: academics, engagement, operations, planning and administration, and innovation and leadership.

“STARS provided a way to get people across campus involved,” said Sherri “Sam” Mason, director of sustainability at Behrend. “It also highlighted that sustainability is about everything: how much water we use; the food that we serve; our diversity, equity and inclusion priorities; what’s happening in our classrooms; and how we landscape.”

The report also identified areas where improvements could be made.

Mason worked with faculty members across the college to incorporate elements of sustainability in the learning outcomes of their courses. She also expanded the college’s sustainability-based engagement, using peer-to-peer learning and outreach through the Sustainable Food Systems program.

To build on those gains, Mason started a Sustainability Ambassadors program. Students in her inaugural class were actively involved in reporting STARS data.

“Their diverse perspectives helped me see particulars that I hadn’t thought of before,” she said. “Importantly, they also now have a much better appreciation for the breadth that this assessment represents.”

Grace Peterson, a sophomore majoring in environmental systems engineering, was part of that initial cohort. She helped gather information about degree programs and the amount of paper purchased across the college.

“As a Sustainability Ambassador, and as a Behrend student, I feel that being able to express on the global level that we as a campus are working toward sustainable action helps to show that we truly are focused on the future,” Peterson said.

A sustainability-focused faculty fellows program is now being developed. Students also can earn a minor in sustainability leadership, which can complement any major.

“What I really want people to know is that we all have a role in sustainability,” Mason said. “It’s not the domain of the scientists or the engineers. It’s not the domain of the faculty. It’s the domain of every school at this college, and every person who works and learns here.

“It’s important for us to be the leaders in this region,” she said. “I really want to encourage people to find ways to be part of this.”