Michelle Presley converted her English studies into educating FSU's campus about sustainability

By Kara Walker

The skills Michelle Presley learned in her undergraduate years as an English major at Florida State University prepared her significantly for her roles ahead. Now, she applies the lessons she learned to promote a crucial issue: environmental sustainability.

Presley is currently the communications coordinator for FSU’s Sustainable Campus, and every day she uses the knowledge she honed in her college courses.

“My undergraduate coursework provided a rigorous demand for solid writing skills,” says Presley, who earned her bachelor’s degree in English in 2014. “A lot of writing skills go into developing copy for social media posts or graphics. Even—and especially—those shorter-form media require solid technical writing skills.”

Presley has been in her communications coordinator position since May 2019, and she earned her master’s from FSU in April 2020 in Public Interest in Media and Communication.

“Engaging in undergraduate research also helped prepare me for my graduate education,” she adds, “so my English degree really set me up for success in that way, too.”

Sustainable Campus chooses to focus on the positives when it comes to the implementation of campus-wide sustainability initiatives and speaking on the topic of climate change, Presley says. While cognizant of the intersections and inequalities surrounding environmental issues, Sustainable Campus takes a balanced approach by addressing three pillars: economy, people, and the planet.

By focusing on these three pillars and the concept of social sustainability, Presley’s office “aims to advocate for operational changes that make FSU more efficient and more environmentally conscious, but then also provide education for sustainability and the next cohort of environmental leaders.”

“You want people to feel empowered to do something to tackle the problem, but the other part of that is making it easier and removing the barriers for them to adopt those pro-environmental behaviors,” she says, as she emphasizes that environmentalism is an area, “rife for more thought and understanding.”

Presley says she is grateful for the English professors who inspired her and continue to influence her today. Specifically, Presley thanks Alisha Gaines, associate professor of English, and Trinyan Mariano, assistant professor of English, for introducing her to critical race theory and African American literature and studies.

Engaging in undergraduate research also helped prepare me for my graduate education, so my English degree really set me up for success in that way, too.

— Michelle Presely

“Storytelling is a powerful tool of connection and understanding,” Presley says. “As we work toward environmental justice by recognizing and challenging the inequities that occur along the lines of race, class, and gender in the sustainability movement, these faculty members and the lessons I learned in their courses are invaluable to me.”

Presley also refers to a more personal takeaway from Professor Leigh Edwards and her Literary Expressions of Pop Culture class.

“I don’t do a lot of office space sharing these days, but if I did, my coworkers would tell you that I’m almost always listening to Johnny Cash or Dolly Parton,” Presley says, referring to Edwards’ research and two published books focused on the musical icons.

As students, faculty, staff, and administration members return to campus in the upcoming months, Presley says it is important to recognize the influence that one has on the environment as more and more of those issues come to the forefront. While Sustainable Campus continues to work within the FSU framework to motivate change, students also have significant agency.

Small behaviors, Presley says, such as “turning off lights when you leave the room or carrying a reusable water bottle,” go a long way and when the campus community meets Sustainable Campus halfway that makes a world of difference.

"The biggest impact that students have is the stuff they bring with them and buy while they’re here,” Presley says. “One takeaway for students is . . . to be mindful of what you own and what you bring to campus and really examine the idea of a throwaway culture.”

Presley and Sustainable Campus run the Green Office Program, which recently highlighted the English department’s success with sustainability practices.

The Department of English garnered an 86 percent on Florida State University’s Green Office Certification Program in November 2019, which earned the department Gold Office Status, as reported in English major Emily Voytecek's article “Turning the Department of English green and gold.” Since then, the global pandemic leaves questions regarding sustainability practices throughout the English department and campus-wide.

Presley says the English department’s success is largely due to its innovation in Waste Management (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) via centralized waste sorting stations, which “have been rolling out across campus and started as an initiative in response to COVID-19,” she adds.

English department members adopted this innovative system before the rest of campus did, characterizing them as key trailblazers in sustainable practice.

Centralized waste sorting stations are combined bins that consist of labels such as “Plastic, Trash, and Paper,” where one decides which section to use when discarding material. Community trash cans instead of individual classroom containers are essential for reducing recycling contamination, Presley says.

As the FSU community continues the process of returning to classrooms and offices, how does COVID-19 affect the campus as a whole and the department’s sustainability practices? The answer is relatively simple and possibly less negative than one might think.

“People expect COVID-19 to have this increased negative effect [on sustainability]. . .in some ways it has,” Presley says, using disposable personal protective equipment as an example. The positives include installation of the community waste stations.

“One single collection point allows building services staff to have more time sanitizing and cleaning common spaces,” Presley explains. “Something the university implemented for public health has the double benefit of reducing recycling contamination.”

FSU’s goals for sustainability go beyond conserving energy and reducing waste. The entire, mostly unseen operation that Sustainable Campus conducts is a support for FSU’s Waste Management Facility, which manages waste services, building management, grounds, and landscaping, among other actions.

Sustainable Campus currently works within FSU COVID-19 regulations to host an array of safe events such as Plant-a-Palooza and ReCycle Bikes in order to provide tangible, interactive, community-building, and sustainable-oriented experiences for students. They also offer virtual events for those who are not able to venture out during these times.

Presley knows how much education, and communication, in particular, intersects with and plays a role in promoting the idea of a sustainable and livable planet for everyone. She stresses that being inclusive, approachable, positive, and empowering is essential when shaping environmental spaces and messaging.

Avoiding appeals to fear and sadness and the toxicity and eco-anxiety that may come with that is crucial, she adds, calling upon her English studies to explain.

“Storytelling is such a powerful driver of human attitudes and behavior,” Presley says. “It’s so impactful to share success stories—it’s the oldest human connection way to reach people.”

Visit https://sustainablecampus.fsu.edu/ for more information, including upcoming campus wide events to participate in and to find ways that you can make a difference.

Kara Walker is an English major on the Editing, Writing, and Media track, with a double major in Media and Communication Studies.

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