For and with others: Growing sustainability at Xavier

By: Taylor Fulkerson ~Managing Editor~

Xavier announced three majors in sustainability only two years ago, in the fall of 2013. This May, three students will graduate with sustainability- related degrees. They will be the first students to do so.

Joe McGrath, a senior majoring in Sustainability: Economics & Management (a business sustainability major with concentrations in economics and management), is unique. While both Mark Miller and Michael Murray have been able to incorporate a sustainability related major in with the majors they were already pursuing, McGrath was unable to do that.

“I switched my junior year from a double major in management and entrepreneurial studies with a double minor in theology and international business and dropped everything to be a sustainability major,” McGrath said. McGrath went on an Alternative Breaks trip as a sophomore to Appalachia. There he examined the effects of mountain-top removal and other coal mining issues. In addition, he looked at European Union sustainability initiatives while studying abroad in Ireland, McGrath found himself in a management class focusing on sustainability.

“I was really enjoying the class, and I said, ‘Why am I not studying this?’ One thing led to another, I got my credits lined up and I was able to switch majors,” McGrath said. He is now completing the major and also works for Xavier’s Urban Farm as the chief operating manager. The urban farm is a studentrun business, currently managed by five students from Williams College of Business (WCB).

“We started back in the fall, developing an entire business plan, our business model, our marketing model, and it’s taking the skills we’ve learned in the business school. Along with my team, our passion for sustainability and our passion for urban agriculture, we’re turning that into a working business.”

The farm sold produce at a local farmers market in Norwood in October of last year at the end of the growing season, making several hundred dollars. The students run the farm with help from a variety of student and faculty advisors, including Sustainability Director Ann Dougherty, professors Kathleen Smythe (history) and Nancy Bertaux (economics), recentlyretired professor of management Gerry Brawn and Joe Carter, a visiting professor, director of the Sedler Family Center in WCB.

While students are learning through administering the business side of things, the urban farm could also serve as a “classroom” in the future for professors to deepen students’ experiences. With a newly-built hoop house, there is enough space under cover for a classroom-style setting.

According to McGrath, the urban farm will serve the local community well. It brings fresh produce to the area, a need for both North Avondale and Evanston. Parts of both neighborhoods are food deserts, areas without easy access to produce or groceries for residents.

The urban farm, operating as a business, also has to take into account the difficulties of practicing agriculture in the middle of a city, including investigating what is and isn’t permitted within city limits. To sell excess produce to Chartwells, the corporation that runs Hoff Dining Commons, the farm will need a fence enclosing it and will not be able to use fertilizer with manure in it.

For McGrath, the work to bring the programs to Xavier and to get the urban farm up and running is well worth it. “To be right here in the middle of Cincinnati, where we are, and to have an urban agriculture program, is ridiculous to think about for a small, private school, and even more ridiculous to think about in the middle of Cincinnati. UC barely has one, so that says something about us. We’re taking big strides to make progress in this,” McGrath said.

“With the farm, (the university) is showing that it’s willing to put physical assets into something and commit the university, commit money, commit time and energy into having fresh produce for the lo-cal community (and) the Xavier community.” The movement toward teaching and practicing sustainability is also about values. “When you look at the root of the sustainability movement, the green movement, it’s working to better the lives of others and better the lives of everyone, whether that be from a business perspective, a health perspective, ex cetera,” McGrath said.

“With being a man or woman for and with others, I think that alone says everything. That defines what sustainability could be. It’s that all of your actions are intentional,” he said. So what’s next after graduating with this degree? McGrath said that his degree isn’t “cookiecutter”: there’s no set path for him, but “sustainability is sexy. Every major corporation needs sustainability to be part of its model right now.” Next year he has a job at Macy’s working on sustainability, a position he didn’t anticipate seeking.

“I was always really against going into the corporate world. Something about it just did not seem appealing to me. But things lined up for me,” McGrath said. He claims that Xavier’s commitment to sustainability in and outside the classroom is a benefit for students. “Rather than graduating with a set degree and having an interest in this, my entire degree is my interest,” McGrath said. “And I show my passion through my degree, through the things I’m involved with, growing from that. There isn’t a cookie-cutter job for me, but if you’re going to get a sustainability degree, I don’t think you’re looking for cookie-cutter.”