Q&A with Sustainability Manager Aysha Bodenhamer

You may know Aysha Bodenhamer ’10 as a Radford University alumna and faculty member in the Department of Sociology. Earlier this year, however, Bodenhamer began a new role, serving as her alma mater’s newest sustainability manager. It’s a position she said will allow her to do more to “instill a culture of sustainability” in the Highlander community by engaging “every partner possible across the campus to make Radford the go-to university for sustainability.”

What sparked your interest in sustainability in your professional and personal lives?

“I have always been environmentally focused. In fact, when asked the question as a kid – “What do you want to be when you grow up?” – my answer was “a garbage man.” Looking back, I think this was the narrow worldview of a 5-year-old who wanted to do something environmentally related. 

Aysha Bodenhamer ’10

All jokes aside, growing up in Appalachia, self-reliance was a big part of my upbringing. Every year, we had a big garden, and most of the meat we ate was either fish my dad caught or venison he hunted. I didn’t really think of these things as being sustainability-related until much later in my life when I learned more about food systems and factory farms.

At Radford University, while I was an undergraduate student, I learned more about environmental sociology and Appalachian studies. Due to my experiences conducting research on environmental attitudes and traveling to mountaintop removal coal sites in West Virginia, I knew I wanted to focus on environmental issues and community in graduate school.

While I was a master’s and doctoral student at North Carolina State University, I honed my skills to focus on environmental issues pertaining to extractive industries (i.e., coal) and the externalities they produce in the forms of environmental harms and health impacts. These research experiences helped me realize the complex realities of our daily lives – our dependency on fossil fuels and electricity and our taken-for-granted unawareness of these institutions, processes and policies that unknowingly affect so many people and regions.

Since coming back to Radford University as a professor of sociology, I’ve continued to develop my interest in environmental issues. I worked on a recycling project early on and learned a lot about sustainability from Appalachian State University’s programs. It always left me a little jealous that we didn’t have more of those programs at Radford. One of my favorite and more popular classes to teach has been SOCY 370: Environmental Sociology. This class is always a lot of fun because I teach students the humanistic side of environmental issues. Most people have very little exposure to the sociological side of environment issues and find it very enlightening. The culmination of these experiences gave me the courage to take the leap in hopes of doing more across the university to instill a culture of sustainability across our campuses.”

What should the Radford University community know about campus sustainability initiatives, and how can it continue to build on previous sustainability efforts?

“Most people probably don’t know that Radford has a longstanding history of sustainability. Radford University was actually one of the first universities in Virginia to create a recycling program.

In 1991, President Donald Dedmon signed the Talloires Declaration, the first official statement made by university presidents to show a commitment to sustainability in higher education. In 2008, under President Penelope Kyle, we created an Office of Sustainability and the sustainability steering committee. Since then, we’ve made several sustainability commitments, including STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System), in which we have a silver rating. 

We conduct an annual greenhouse gas inventory, and most recently, the Radford University Board of Visitors approved our Path to 2040: The Radford University Sustainability & Climate Action Plan. The Path to 2040 is currently our biggest initiative. It’s an 80-page document outlining our plans to infuse sustainability across the campus while also achieving net carbon neutrality by 2040. Every cornerstone of the university is touched by this plan, including things like improving our curricula, contracts and procurement, energy and efficiency, etc. etc.

Bodenhamer sits in the cab of an electric semi truck during an e-vehicle showcase on campus in 2024.

Data suggests that Gen Z students are increasingly looking for an opportunity to make a difference, and sustainability is at the top of their list for what they’re looking for in a college experience.

Right now, I’m looking to engage every partner possible across the campus to make Radford University the go-to university for sustainability.

Lofty goals, I know, but I think they align well with President Bret Danilowicz’s vision and the direction we’re going as a university by focusing on the region in which we live, Appalachia, and how we can make it better.”

How do you plan to get students more involved with sustainability at Radford?

“I intend to make sustainability the new norm at Radford University.

This takes a couple of things – students need to learn about their impact on the Earth, and they need to get outside. They need to feel connected to nature and this place in which we live. Get off your phones and go breathe some fresh air. It’s important, and it’s healing to feel grounded.

My intention is to make sustainability fun and informative. A few initiatives are already happening, but I anticipate more – the Freshman Float, in which students get to tube down the New River. The ReNew the New program that kicks off the fall semester with a river cleanup. The Alternative Spring Break trip we’ve sponsored for more than 10 years, where students volunteer to plant trees on former surface mines or work on the Appalachian Trail. RU Outdoors is doing some amazing programming. The Green Team is active and engaged. Now is the time to get involved!

Aside from outdoor programming, we are a university, and we have amazing research capacity as a primarily undergraduate-serving institution. I’m encouraged by all the environmental research happening at the Student Engagement Forum, the Wicked Festival and the Innovation Challenge.

We want to increase environmentally focused internships. I’m already seeing a shift on campus among our faculty and students, and I only think it’s going to get better. I’ve been encouraged by Chartwells’ use of reusable containers and more plant-based meals in the dining hall. I’d like to see less plastic on campus, more reusable water bottles and better awareness about how much waste we produce as a university.

Last year, we took 2,149,140 pounds of waste to the landfill. We also recycled 232,598 pounds of recycling, a 10.8% diversion rate, which isn’t bad, but we can do better. Increasing awareness goes a long way. Being mindful of our actions instead of mindlessly consuming everything all the time and then throwing it away. We must change these habits if we want to achieve a sustainable future.

In the future, I want to see more renewable energy projects and the development of more sustainability-related curricula. Students help drive these changes, so get involved and let your voice be heard!”

How have you been involved in promoting sustainability on campus before taking the sustainability manager position?

“I’ve been involved with sustainability since I started as a professor in 2017. I have served on both the sustainability steering committee and the Selu steering committee since then. I was appointed by President Brian O. Hemphill to serve on the Presidential Sustainability Task Force, which was the group that created the 2040 Plan.

My teaching and research interests have always been environmentally focused. I’ve given countless presentations about environmental issues in Appalachia. I’ve mentored several students in their environmental research. I’ve taken students to the coalfields to plant trees. I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture. Ultimately, I love this region and this university, and I think we have so much potential to be the hub of Southwest Virginia by focusing on how we can be good stewards in the region and by making this a better place.”

May 6, 2024
Chad Osborne
(540) 831-7761