When she came to UT Knoxville as a student in 1999, Sarah Surak was a passionate person still looking to find just what her passion would be. As soon as she took Dr. Mike McKinney’s Geology 201 class as a sophomore, she knew that the environment was her niche.
As a student – and now as public relations manager for UT Facilities Services – she has helped guide the Make Orange Green program, which has helped the Knoxville campus earn a national reputation as an environmental leader.
Throughout April, faculty, staff and students will celebrate Make Orange Green Earth Month, four weeks of events and activities designed to highlight UT’s environmental efforts. Click here to view the list of events.
As an undergrad, Surak was the president of SPEAK, the student environmental organization. At the time, the campus had a limited campus recycling program, and Surak volunteered the members of SPEAK to help run the program.
"We spent so much time at those recycling bins that I started having dreams – nightmares really – about them," Surak says. But the program was a success, and by the end of her senior year, the campus needed a full-time recycling coordinator. Surak was the right choice for the job.
Surak points to one event as a vital tipping point in the campus environmental program: the student-led and administration-supported effort to enact the Student Environmental Initiatives Fee. Now five dollars per semester, per student, goes directly to environmental work on campus.
"That took the program beyond recycling, and more importantly, it showed the support of the students and the administration in getting behind the environmental effort," she said.
The fee funds everything from hybrid and electric vehicles to compact fluorescent light bulbs and water-saving plumbing fixtures – all steps, she points out, that help the environment and are also good for the university’s bottom line.
"We can use the Environmental Initiatives Fee as seed money to pay for projects that may be costly upfront, but that will save us far more money in reduced energy consumption over time," she says.
"The same goes for our Environmental Stewardship Fund, which gives faculty, staff and alumni a chance to financially support the Make Orange Green program," she says. "Gifts to it go a long way because they end up multiplying so much over time."
Make Orange Green has garnered national media attention. UT Knoxville has recently become the first campus in the entire country to have its cleaning processes certified green.
The future looks bright. UT Knoxville has embarked on an ambitious project to become carbon-neutral, which would place the university among the nation’s environmentally elite institutions.
"We’re a leader in Tennessee, in the Southeast and in the nation," she says. "As a UT alum, as a staff member, I love UT, and that makes me incredibly proud."