Mark Boulet has been involved in Monash Sustainable Development Institute’s Green Steps program in "one way or another" for two decades - firstly as a participant, then as program manager and now as a trainer. It had been such a key part of his life that he feels it could almost be regarded as his “third child”.

 

But it was only recently, when he was completing an entry for the Monash University Vice-Chancellor’s Teaching Excellence award, that he fully understood how it has shaped him. 

“One third of my application was about stuff I’d learnt from Green Steps,” Mr Boulet said.  “In terms of the way I teach and how I engage students - my philosophies have been shaped by the work I did on Green Steps”. 

Likewise, current program manager Liz Bacchetti regards her time participating in the sustainability leadership program as her fondest memory as a university student and one the defined the future career for the former journalist. “It confirmed this is what I want to be doing,” said Ms Bacchetti, who like a number of alumni now works at MSDI. 

This year marked 20 years since Green Steps emerged from a vision of a small group of students who wanted an avenue to put their environmental studies into practice. Ms Bacchetti said an online event will be held in February 2021 to mark the milestone, celebrate the sustainability journeys of the alumni and, in true Green Steps fashion, challenge their perceptions of the future. 

"It's an incredible effort that a sustainability education program and, in particular an extra-curricular program, has lasted 20 years so it’s reason enough to just celebrate that," Ms Bacchetti said. "But ... it's also about acknowledging the extraordinary impact of the program, its international reach and in particular, what our alumni have gone on to do.”

Mr Boulet and Ms Bacchetti say there are many stories out there. The program has over the years grown, contracted, been reviewed and redesigned. But, through it all, its influence through developing change makers has remained and there are now more than 1300 alumni at all levels of decision-making in government, universities, and business communities in Australia and overseas. 

Mr Boulet said he was reminded of this every time he attended a meeting with fellow sustainability professionals. 

"There will always be at least one person who has done Green Steps," Boulet said. "It's pretty phenomenal and shows the impact of the program." 

Ms Bacchetti said she can still be surprised about where alumni end up. She said she recently received an email from a person who was working as a sustainability consultant in Mauritius and "she just wanted to connect back in and see if we had anything she could use for her new role”. 

“I thought that was quite cool," Ms Bacchetti said. 

It was also what the program was all about. ‘Green Steppers’ were not necessarily the ones in highly visible roles, but their influence in changing the world to more sustainable ways was undeniably significant. 

“It’s about being change agents at all levels within an organisation, and not just about being in a position of power,” Ms Bacchetti said.  “We’re developing strong advocates for change across all sectors and organisations who are putting in the hard work to make the world a better place.” 

Mr Boulet agreed these are the people who reflect the true Green Stepper nature.  “They're the ones who every day are nose to the grindstone,” Mr Boulet said. “They're not ones who are out there, you know, running UN international conventions or are politicians and all the rest, but they’re the ones who do the hard work required for sustainability in local councils, organisations and governments.” 

Green Steps was a ground-breaking educational approach when it was established in 2000 and, even in the earliest days, proved to be a powerful platform for career development with the likes of founding members Elya Tagar and Will Symons later becoming successful sustainable development professionals.

 It found a keen following with the program experiencing a decade of significant growth. It expanded to 14 universities in Australia, Malaysia and Britain and training programs and workshops were held for external organisations.  However, it faced an uncertain future mid-way through last decade.

MSDI Director of Education Annette Bos said the sustainability field had evolved markedly during Green Steps’ first 15 years and the program had been “at the crossroads” as it faced increased competition. A review was undertaken by then-program manager Gitanjali Bedi in 2016, to assess how it could continue to align with contemporary needs. 

“We needed to understand what the program gave the participants - it’s value and significance to them - and also identify the relevant sustainability skills and knowledge of the future that should be addressed in the program,” Associate Professor Bos said.   

Bedi conducted interviews and focus groups, surveyed 900 alumni and completed extensive academic research to assess the program’s value. She said it still “provided great insights and transformative learning for participants and had guided them to move into careers that focused on the environment and sustainability”. 

“The program shifts students’ mindsets, it opens their minds up,” Ms Bedi said.

“Students very rarely, unless they’re specifically studying a sustainable-related course, get exposed to the broader issues of sustainable development, the grand challenges, the Sustainable Development Goals framework and very rarely get the skills and experience to help them figure out where they can make a difference.” 

Ms Bedi, who is now a Green Steps trainer, recommended paring the program back to Monash University and shifting its focus from environmental sustainability to the broader social, environment and economic principles of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. 

The program was redesigned into a multi-step process that included: an application where students outline a personal sustainability pledge, five days of training from experts from across MSDI and a consultancy project, primarily with Monash University’s Buildings and Property department.

Ms Bacchetti said Green Steps has retained its focus on hands-on and engaging training and attracted outstanding students from across the university – predominately from Business, Arts, Science and Engineering faculties, although there had been a significant surge in interest this year from the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences. 

She said the high standard from more than 100 applicants made the selection process particularly difficult. The 2020 cohort was the highest-ever intake of 36 students, with their training held online for the first time because of Covid-19 restrictions.

Ms Bacchetti said Green Steps’ longevity owed a great deal to Buildings and Property director of business support, Paul Barton, who has championed and provided financial backing to the program from its early days.

“Paul’s support as a program partner over many years is highly valued and has played a key role in Green Steps’ growth and development,” she said.

Mr Barton said Monash campuses provide ideal ‘living labs’ for the students to bring unique perspectives to problems that even the university staff have "not been able to crack".  

He said as a general rule of thumb - factoring in that innovation may not always work - he hoped the program unearthed a successful idea “every second or third year”. He said some of his favourite initiatives had been those that addressed paper recycling, waste and energy management and transport issues.

“We have for years been providing pain points, problems and issues for the students to tackle on our behalf and they've done a fantastic job over the years of really thinking carefully through some of the issues and problems and then coming back to us with solutions,” Mr Barton said.

“The other thing that resonates with me is just the calibre of the students and their passion for sustainability. I've been here 21 years and some of them you know are just going to be really top quality when they get out into business because they shine through these programs." 

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