Leaving a legacy of sustainability in UW–Madison Housing

Laura Shere holding a giant inflated globe

by Jill Sakai

As Laura Shere nears her last day working at UW–Madison, one of her final contributions has been to ensure that University Housing’s commitment to sustainability is itself sustainable.

After spending more than 20 years overseeing a variety of programs at Eagle Heights and University Apartments, Shere was appointed Housing’s first sustainability program manager in 2012. During the four years since, she has engaged a range of people, from students to administrators, to help integrate sustainability thinking into numerous department practices and initiatives. And it is clear that these efforts will continue after Shere’s retirement. Breana Nehls was recently appointed as Housing’s new Sustainability and Communications Coordinator and has worked closely with Shere to make a smooth transition.

“Laura has done a great job of empowering others to follow in her footsteps,” says Cathy Middlecamp, interim director of sustainability research and education at UW–Madison. “But – as a colleague, as a mentor, and as a friend to so many – she will be sorely missed.”

Early on in her new role, Shere teamed up with Mike Henry, in Housing Facilities, to coalesce a Housing Sustainability Committee. The committee brought together people from many parts of the division.

“Before Laura became the coordinator of Housing’s Sustainability Committee, there were several attempts to develop a working group in the division, but there wasn’t a full time presence to move the effort forward,” Henry says. “Laura was able to step in and listen to the ideas and visions of several people who were passionate about sustainability issues, and bring people together in agreement with plans to achieve initiatives that were extremely successful in diverting waste from the landfill, and reusing or recycling items wherever possible.”

Housing now has several sustainability programs in place. One of the largest is the Sustainability Move-Out, a collaboration across and beyond campus to donate and recycle unwanted material when students move out of the residence halls each spring. This program has grown each year and in 2015 the project team received a Campus Administrative Improvement Award.

Other initiatives include adding in-room recycling bins and in-hall composting, adding sustainability to student employee training, providing reusable water bottles to reduce bottled water waste, and partnering with multiple classes to provide real-world educational opportunities relevant to students. The results of many of these partnerships have influenced Housing decisions as well. For example, the division piloted reusable take-out containers after seeing the volume of food boxes in audits of residence hall trash.

But the programs closest to Shere’s heart revolved around students. “We have a division that listened to students and their interests in sustainability, and have tried to address those interests,” she says. Particularly through the academic collaborations, “students can learn about a topic, then engage in activity that puts it in a practical framework for them.”

This dedication shone through in her work, Henry says. “Laura’s most impressive attribute was in the way that she worked with students … to help them develop their thoughts and ideas into projects which had measurable outcomes and results that benefited not only the greater campus, but also enabled them to develop sustainable practices that they carried into their careers and lives. She had a way of engaging with students that encouraged them to be creative and confident in their work.”

Shere cites the power of bringing people together and sharing resources and energy to lead to positive impacts. “We created a lot of capacity with relatively few resources,” she says. “I feel good about being able to leverage capacity in that way. It gives me hope that we can make even bigger things happen.”

Shere will be moving to Maryland with her husband, Jack. She isn’t quite done yet, though. In October, she and Nehls will present about the Sustainability Move-Out program at the annual conference of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) to help other campuses benefit from their experiences. It will represent yet another way Shere will give back to her broader community.

“Laura is one of the most giving and positive people I have met – she will gladly go out of her way to make a positive impact on others. This is why she is so successful at what she does,” says Nehls. “I feel honored that I will be able to continue programs she has so passionately carried out over the years. I hope to emulate her drive and commitment to service as I follow in her footsteps. One of many very important lessons Laura has taught me over the years is to never lose touch with the ‘heart’ of why you do what you do.”