Student group ignites a passion for sustainability on regional campuses

Sara Allan introduces SPARC to 30 students and professionals participating in the first working group session at the City CoHo Philly Nexus space

Sara Allan introduces SPARC to 30 students and professionals participating in the first working group session at the City CoHo Philly Nexus space

by Brittany Thomas

Launching a student environmental group while in college is impressive, but 22-year-old University of Pennsylvania Environmental Studies senior Sara Allan’s SPARC project has caught fire far beyond the ivied walls of her campus.

In addition to her own university, Drexel, Temple and Villanova students are now all part of the year-old Sustainable Philadelphia Alliance of Regional Campuses (SPARC).  The organization was formed with the help of a small group of peers and an advisory board, and it will soon become an independent nonprofit, led by students and guided by a board of professional sustainability leaders.

When it was established in January 2014, SPARC’s primary goal was to connect representatives from the regional universities so that they could compare notes on how to become most effective on their own campuses. The vision quickly expanded, and the group’s activities are poised to help Philadelphia’s sustainable economy by connecting students to local businesses while they’re still in school, and creating a pipeline of educated employees who want to stay in Philadelphia and drive its economy after they’ve graduated.

“There are over 215,000 college students in Philly,” says Allan, “so if we’re able to help companies get in touch with students, we really do want to help local sustainable businesses grow.” One of the groups that SPARC has forged a relationship with is Sustainable Business Network; it also looked to national thought leaders at places like the Climate Reality Project and Oxfam America to headline its Green Allies Conference in February, which SPARC co-hosted with the SAVE Alliance Foundation.

 “Personally, the proudest moments for me have been keeping the advisory board and student fellows engaged and really excited about the project,” says Allan, who gives equal credit for SPARC’s success to partner Nicole Koedyker, a Drexel University alumna and entrepreneur. “Not only are we starting the conversation; we’re giving opportunities to students who are meeting people out of this and getting experience running a nonprofit from the inside,” says Allan. “I’m getting that experience as well.” 

The focus on integrating into the larger community is one of SPARC’s most successful organizing strategies. In April, it sponsored Sustainable Food Week and helped students collaborate with nonprofits and businesses to host events throughout the city. Activities included offering student discounts at sustainable restaurants, an Iron Chef competition, a work day at Bartram’s Garden and a tour of SHARE, a local food access and education program that encourages any community member in need to volunteer in exchange for healthy, local food. They also encouraged students to attend the Stroehmann Walk & Run Against Hunger and Philly Farm and Food Fest, for which they negotiated student pricing.

Food, energy, waste, transportation, and publications and curriculum integration are all on the group’s radar for programming. Some of the larger events will become annual, destined to be led by new groups of students from both existing leadership and the incoming class of freshmen, there to help fan the flames.