Alex Bryan

STAFF – Director of Student Life Sustainability

“I was a student here in my undergrad degree and [I had a] great time. [I took] English Lit as a degree with a double minor in PitE and Earth Sciences.  I learned a lot and had some pretty transformative experiences. I think many of those were around [some] kind of experiential or applied learning programs. So I went to NELP (the New England Literature Program) in Maine in New England, and then I went to the geology field camp (Camp Davis) in Jackson, Wyoming. I did a semester abroad in New Zealand in applied environmental sciences (EcoQuest). And then I took a semester off and did an AmeriCorps program on a backcountry trail crew, like lived in a tent for six months a night working on fixing trails in California with 12 other people. Our food came once a week by mule. So those experiences to me were really interesting and formative. [Since then], I have always had a fondness for those types of programs that give students that opportunity to really put into action what is being learned, or maybe not even learned in the classroom, but [to] just be put into action in [an] environment that wants to support learning. That was great for undergrad. 

[I] went on and did some other stuff for a little while, but [programs like these] are sort of why I came back to the U. I believe in experiential learning as a mechanism to really transform lives. [There’s also] some pretty strong evidence that this type of learning is more effective, especially when it comes to climate change work. So a few years ago, we were involved in a research study here where we looked at students who had a base knowledge about climate change, [and were] learning about it in the classroom. Then [we] compared that to students who were learning about it, but were also involved in some experiential applied program, a lot of co curricular programs and student orgs. And the difference between those groups and how they engage afterwards, their feelings around climate apathy, or engagement…You’re more likely to talk to an elected official about climate change if you were in one of these programs then if you weren’t. You’re more likely to feel that you can make a difference [and] that not everything is hopeless. So I think, particularly as we think about the climate crisis we’re in, we can’t just educate about how bad it is without providing opportunities for ‘Yes, things aren’t great. Here’s how you can plug in here and learn to do [something about] that.’ So when you leave here, you can take that with you to whatever community you end up in, right? We want to make sure that [if] we’re going to be leaders and best, our students leaving here need to be able to be leaders in their community when it comes to the climate crisis. 

[In my department of Student Life Sustainability]…we have three major buckets [for how] we think about our work. There’s one that’s thinking about our Facilities and Operations. So student life as an auxiliary unit, all of the res halls, and all of the unions are our responsibility…about 20 to 22% of the building footprint of campus. We have to make them more sustainable, more carbon neutral, you know, both because we want to and to align with the university goals. That second bucket is around culture change, sort of broadly for all students and our staff. We want to support programming or events and activities that help embrace an understanding that sustainability and carbon neutrality are important and here’s how you can get involved. And then we have this bucket where we think about student leadership, applied experiential learning. Within that bucket, we have four year-long cohort based programs, the Student Sustainability Coalition (SSC), UM Sustainable Food Program, Planet Blue Student Leaders, and then a new program that’s [called] the Sustainability Cultural Organizers. And these are kind of quasi fellowship, quasi student org. We’ve got 60ish students involved in these programs every year [and] these are paid positions. If we leave this really important work up to those that can afford to volunteer their time, you automatically exclude a large portion of people who probably should be prioritized in being involved in that work. So we really find it’s important to pay for that labor and that time to honor the students there.

And then [these groups] work on a variety of things. One group focuses heavily on peer to peer behavior change…one program focuses heavily on sustainable food, so we run the farmstand weekly in partnership with Campus Farm. The Sustainability Coalition [is] thinking a lot about how to be a conduit between student interests and leadership of the university on topics of sustainability.  And then our last program is the Sustainability Cultural Organizers. We found that the climate crisis isn’t exactly uplifting. I think we look at the Cultural Organizers program as a way to honor a different approach to dealing with the climate crisis that allows us to bring joy, creativity, art, hope, or just kind of be able to sit collectively with our grief and understand what that looks like and try to process it through art. .. [This program and the others], that’s why the work I do at the U is really exciting for me, right? Because I had those experiences and I saw how transformative it was for me and everyone else in those programs, so [I] want to be able to try to offer those to other folks.”

“[For me], I don’t know if there was like the tipping point [regarding climate change]. I think it shows up in many of my memories, right, and becomes more apparent in my memories as we approach the present time. Some of that I’m sure is how we remember things. We remember them more acutely in the near term, and when we’re paying attention to them. But I think some of that is just the frequency of which we’re seeing weather events now. And so, one of the ways I think about the climate crisis, it tends to be weather related. And it tends to be how it impacts my ability to like, have fun in the world, right? Like, I really enjoy cross country skiing and being out in nature in the winter. And that was not really an option the last couple of years, right? And it continues to be less of an option as we move forward. But it really becomes acute when I’m like, ‘Oh, I didn’t get to ski this year, like, wow,’ you know, that hits you in a way…or last fall when we had six inches of rain overnight. We have a small creek that runs usually underneath our driveway. Eight inches deep little creek continually running year-round. Usually it’s under the driveway. Well, you can guess: it went above the driveway. Yeah. So that day, we’re without power, there’s a creek raging over our driveway–I can’t leave! 

And so as I think about climate change, [I think] okay, well yeah, we might have to change some things–some drastically, some not–in our lives, [but] I’m hopeful because the things that we need to do, the things we need to change in our lives, in our society and community, to better adapt to the climate crisis, to better mitigate the climate crisis…Many of those things just make us better. And if we do nothing, [if we] don’t want to shift or change, then the climate will force us to shift or change, right? But we already are having that happen to us so it’s like, okay, well, do I get to choose how I adapt and change to the climate crisis to make it better? Or do I just have to be a passerby as all of a sudden, I can’t go outside? 

I was listening to an interview with Ayana Elizabeth Johnson talking about like, ‘oh, maybe we buy a little less stuff,’ right? And is that really giving up something? Stuff doesn’t make us happy. Yeah, buying a bunch of stuff online [can be a] short term happiness, it feels good in the moment, but [it] doesn’t bring prolonged happiness, in a way that building community does. Or having a few less things that you can take care of, and then maybe love a little bit more, right? Like, if something’s [easily] thrown away, you don’t love it. And if we aren’t learning to love the things around us, then we’re missing out on a really fun opportunity in life. And so I think, the hope comes [from thinking] that the things we need to do or shift will bring us a better life. That’s kind of cool, right, if you think about it. So I just hope we can help others see that that’s the sort of pathway forward [and] that they understand that a changing lifestyle or habit is potentially bringing more good to themselves, to their community, [and] to others.

As part of the LSA Year of Sustainability, LSA Dean’s Fellow Cherish Dean sat down with a range of students, staff, and faculty across the University to illustrate the various relationships people across campus already have to this work, to showcase ways people can get involved, and to highlight the reasons that this work should matter.

To view an abbreviated transcript of Cherish’s full conversation with Alex, click here.

Cherish can be reached at To contact the LSA Year of Sustainability Team as a whole, please contact