Climate StrikeClimate StrikeOne might be surprised to learn that for both Dominique Rosario ’20 and Saul Zuniga ’22, joining student organizations during their first semester at Southwestern was not high on their list of priorities. Rosario recalls being “nervous and very introverted,” whereas Zuniga says he “was somewhat reluctant to socialize and participate in community events.”

So how did these SU students become copresidents of Students for Environmental Activism and Knowledge, or SEAK, a member organization of the Coalition for Diversity and Social Justice (CDSJ)?

“Being an environmental studies major, it called to me,” remembers Rosario, who is also majoring in Spanish. “I started going to meetings, and it just kinda felt like home. All the members were super nice, and I could say anything, and no one would judge me. I would have a bad day, and a SEAK meeting would make me feel better. I’d leave with a smile on my face after really good intellectual conversations outside the classroom setting because they were organic—not forced by a prompt from a teacher. It was us really caring about these topics.”

For Zuniga, too, SEAK was the niche he had been looking for. “I knew I wanted to do something with activism, but I didn’t know exactly what,” he says. He decided to try out several CDSJ groups during his first year, which he enjoyed. But SEAK offered “something new,” including “education, learning more about the environment, [and] learning about the community,” he shares. “I’m a very individualistic person in that I want to better myself… . I changed a lot and learned a lot my first year in SEAK.”

SEAK’s mission and history

One of Southwestern’s appeals for many students is its reputation for being an environmentally responsible university, earning the institution accolades as a Princeton Review Green College, a Bee Campus, and a champion of the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Green Power Challenge. And those accolades have been hard-won by students in such organizations as SEAK, whose official purposes are “to improve sustainability policies on Southwestern’s campus, state-wide, and nationally,” “to educate and involve the Southwestern community in environmental, energy, and conservation issues,” and “to create a cleaner and more sustainable Southwestern future.”

Rosario says that the group revisits their mission each semester to determine the goals they’ll set, the discussions they’ll have at meetings, and the events they’ll host. In 2018–2019, for example, the organization focused on activism and educating community members about environmental issues. “Our biggest hurdle is getting people to know about the problem but then also care about the problem. We want them to know why they should care,” she explains. That objective culminated in SEAK’s Climate Strike in fall 2019, during which Southwestern students joined millions of environmentalists who were simultaneously protesting in thousands of cities worldwide. The event, organized by SEAK officer Nicole Rajtak ’22, drew at least 100 people to the Bishops Lounge, where students and faculty discussed why climate change is important and shared why they support climate resilience. The boisterous crowd held up signs, one SEAK member performed a song, and the group united in a chant. The organization also hosted stations where people wrote letters to representatives, students made signs and took photos to post on social media, and children had fun with coloring pages.

Our biggest hurdle is getting people to know about the problem but then also care about the problem. We want them to know why they should care.

Such commitment to not just activism but also education extends back to SEAK’s founding in 1999, which led to the birth of the environmental studies academic program a year later and the establishment of the Sustainable Advancement Funding Endeavor (SAFE) in 2015.  More commonly known as the Green Fund, SAFE was created by SU students to provide money for campus projects that promote the environmental, social, and economic sustainability of the university. The Green Fund, Rosario recounts, has helped support numerous projects on campus, including the installation of LED lighting, animal-waste stations, recycling bins, and water-bottle refilling stations at water fountains.

The organization’s activism, in the form of peaceful protests and sit-ins at the university president’s office, also led to Southwestern’s conversion to wind energy back in 2010—a significant stride forward that then inspired the city of Georgetown to follow suit in the years that followed. “SEAK has been integral in bringing green energy to campus and to Georgetown, but a lot of people don’t know that,” Rosario remarks. “Students in the past have made most of the changes on campus. Highlighting that is important because it’s really hard to get past the red tape of administration.”

As a history major and biology and health studies double minor who recently researched the local outbreak of gastrointestinal disease due to unchlorinated wells in Georgetown in 1980, Zuniga adds that he appreciates the need to educate SU and local community members alike on the importance of environmental issues such as clean drinking-water sources. Just as there was 40 years ago, he says, there is still today “a need for a community that would care for, advocate for, and educate about the environment”—and he is proud that SEAK has had such positive impacts on both the campus and the surrounding city.  

A full calendar of invigorating discussions and events

SEAK’s membership has ebbed and flowed throughout the years, but prior to the COVID-19 disruption of campus last year, it enjoyed a healthy roster of anywhere from 15 to 40 students regularly attending its meetings. Rosario attributes that interest to an influx of class of 2023 students who were “very enthusiastic about the environment and events on campus in general,” she says, as well as to the marketing efforts of Leah Horick ’21, who served as SEAK president before Rosario and Zuniga and has since retaken the reins this academic year.

Part of last year’s incoming class’s interest was sparked by SEAK’s Sustainable Campus Tour, which Rosario and Zuniga led during Welcome Week. The tour included information about Southwestern’s various sustainability initiatives: the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certifications of certain buildings, the energy-efficient lighting fixtures, the community garden and its composting bin, the Pirate Bikes, and the types of native trees and other plant life that dot Southwestern’s grounds. “That was awesome to me,” Zuniga shares. “I think we touched a lot of people, and we got them interested in the environment or SEAK or just Southwestern.” Many of the 50 or so first-year students who participated in the tour then attended SEAK meetings throughout the year, where officers and members set agendas, planned events, created posters, screened documentaries or YouTube videos, and engaged in discussion about what Rosario describes as “all facets of environmentalism,” such as the relationship between fashion and its effects on the environment, including climate change.

One of Zuniga’s favorite SEAK events is plogging, which began in Sweden in 2016 in response to increased concerns about plastic pollution. The activity combines picking up litter with jogging. He also enjoys SEAKsgiving, a potluck dinner that students enjoy together in the student-tended community garden. Rosario loves the group’s Earth Week events each April, which in the past have concluded with their Global Food Feast. Teams representing various CDSJ organizations each choose a country and prepare a vegetarian dish from that region; students then pay $1 per serving, a price point that allows them to sample cuisines from around the world. The proceeds then go to a local Georgetown organization. Both leaders share a special fondness for SEAK’s camping event: in 2019, members traveled to Bastrop State Park over a weekend, slept in tents, cooked food over campfires, and went on a guided hike with a master naturalist, who introduced the students to the local flora and fauna.

SEAKing knowledge and self-improvement

Zuniga shares that SEAK events like camping, plogging, and Earth Day are defining his college career. “I can’t talk about my Southwestern Experience without SEAK, ” he reflects. “It’s been fundamental… . The people I’ve met at SEAK have been the most caring people I’ve met. They care a lot about the environment and about the people that environmental issues harm a lot. I don’t 100% agree with them on all issues, and that’s perfectly fine, but we’re bonded together by our interest in the environment and helping other people, and that comes from being more open to other people.”

The people I’ve met at SEAK have been the most caring people I’ve met. They care a lot about the environment and about the people that environmental issues harm a lot. I don’t 100% agree with them on all issues, and that’s perfectly fine, but we’re bonded together by our interest in the environment and helping other people, and that comes from being more open to other people.

SEAK has been a crucial complement to what Zuniga has been learning in the classroom; both have expanded his understanding of such complicated issues as recycling, which has connections to social and economic factors. “That’s what I got from SEAK at first: the knowledge. Then, I got a sense of responsibility and leadership as copresident,” Zuniga says. He explains that group members and officers may all have different approaches to problem-solving complex environmental issues. But, he says, “I’ve begun to approach these issues as a very individual responsibility. I want to help people acknowledge what they’re doing and that they could do better with their actions—and I want to do that for myself. That’s what SEAK is: it’s that desire and accepting responsibility to do better.”

Since graduating from Southwestern this past spring, Rosario has fulfilled her goal of moving away from Texas and finding work with an environmentalist agency. She recently landed a position as a naturalist with Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon, Colorado, and will likely pursue a master’s at some point in sustainability studies. As she looks back on her time with SEAK, she says that she’ll always remember the joy she got from engaging in the organization. And she appreciates that she, like Zuniga, has developed various leadership skills by serving as copresident and working with a range of offices and clubs across campus, from Alumni and Parent Relations and Marketing and Communications to Student Activities and partnering CDSJ organizations. “I also learn a lot because everybody has different backgrounds: economics, biology, psychology—all different perspectives on topics in the discussions we have,” she adds. “Environmental studies is a very interdisciplinary field, so you can’t just look at it from one point of view, and having all those majors is definitely a benefit.”

But perhaps most of all, Rosario will miss the fervor and commitment of her fellow SU environmentalists—and the feeling of gratitude and accomplishment of moving the sustainability dial forward, even if just incrementally. “That’s what I love about SEAK: we just keep being passionate about it, and even if [something] didn’t work out, we keep trying to get the word out,” she says. “SEAK makes you feel like we’ve made a difference, even with the little things.”