After two years of pandemic-disrupted programming, Eco Day returned to its full and former glory this spring. On April 21, the entire Hotchkiss community took the day off from classes to participate in the annual event, now in its 26th year, that champions the School’s commitment to environmental stewardship. Although a modified program was held last year and a virtual one in 2020, the majority of the student body had never experienced a proper Eco Day.
“We’re the only grade that remembers what it was like before,” said Eliza Ross ’22. As the co-head of SEA (Students for Environmental Action), Ross played a leading role in planning this year’s event. The goal, she explained, was to restore the energy that made it such a vibrant and memorable part of her prep year while maximizing the day’s impact. “We had a unique opportunity this year to reset what Eco Day looks like and create a new precedent for what people should expect.”
In the morning, the entire school gathered in Walker Auditorium to hear from guest speakers. After lunch, advisory groups spent the afternoon working on environmental service projects on and off campus. While the day’s structure was similar to years past, the scope was much more local.
“Last year, Dr. Gary Kofinas visited campus and gave a fascinating talk about his work in Alaska with native communities and addressing climate change,” said Farm Education Coordinator Amy Sidran who oversees Eco Day preparations. “It was incredible. But it’s not here. And this year we really wanted to bring that global piece back and take a hyper local view.”
Approaching environmentalism through a global lens can feel overwhelming. “So often when we talk about climate change and sustainability, it’s a lot of big picture issues that just seem unsolvable,” said Ross. “Those are huge problems with no clear answer on how you can help or make a difference. But little things help, like picking up trash on the side of the road. Fifty of us going somewhere and doing an hour of work can save one person hours and hours. That makes a difference.”
The morning session was broken into two parts, the first of which featured several adults from the community. Josh Hahn, assistant head of School and director of strategic initiatives, Mike Webster, director of dining services, Bridget Lawrence-Meigs, director of Fairfield Farm, and local farmer Allen Cockerline gave a thorough presentation on the School’s ongoing sustainability efforts.
“We decided to center our theme around Hotchkiss so we could get to know our campus more intimately,” said SEA co-head Margo Donohue ’22. “We wanted to give full overviews of all environmental aspects of Hotchkiss––whether that be the farm, the solar fields, the biomass facility, or sustainability and sourcing in the dining hall––to really show how kids can engage and how we’ve engaged in the past. Hopefully this inspires underclassmen to think of new ideas of how to engage for the future.”
After the presentation, Donohue and Ross moderated a panel made up of five students who are active in environmental work on campus and in their home communities. In sharing their experiences, Ein Jun ‘22, Nithya Chundi ‘23, Kwaku Agyapong ‘22, Fati Salifu ‘22, and Aurora (Siqin) Zhang ‘24 addressed the different ways students can make a direct impact.
“Personal student experiences are powerful,” Sidran said. “They lead to more change because students are paying attention to what other students are doing.”
Following the morning program, everyone enjoyed an outdoor lunch at Bissell Commons. During the afternoon session, advisee groups fanned out and pursued a variety of outdoor projects across Fairfield Farm, the Hotchkiss beach, Beeslick Woods, and more.
“Whether you’re cleaning the lakefront, picking up trash on the side of the road, or pruning raspberry bushes at the farm, being there with your advisory is really special because you’re making that bond together and you’re doing something collectively good for the environment,” said Donohue.
In addition to the work on campus, several groups departed in mid-buses to tackle off-campus projects. Some planted trees at the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Falls Village while others cleared trails at the Sharon Audubon Society. This was a refreshing change of scenery for students whose movements have been limited by two years of pandemic-induced restrictions, but it was also a valuable opportunity to engage in community service.
“As we’re trying to re-start, this is a good way for our students to go back into the community and remind our neighbors that Hotchkiss is here and we want to do more,” said Sidran.
“Hotchkiss is its own little bubble,” added Donohue, “and that’s been particularly exacerbated during covid. We wanted to have the day focused on local issues, not just Hotchkiss local, but also our surrounding communities.”
Throughout the week leading up to Eco Day, SEA sponsored a plant sale where students could buy baby succulents for their dorm rooms. All of the profits from the plant sale, totaling $500, will be donated to the food pantry at the North East Community Center in Millerton, helping the pantry to close a funding gap and providing food for as many as 100 households. Food security is a problem for many residents in the local community, and it has become even more acute due to rising energy costs, inflation, and local housing pressure.
In reflecting on the significance of Eco Day, Ross focused on the big picture. “At the end of the day, it’s just one day where we get to contribute to the community and learn something new. But we hope that this doesn’t serve as the only thing that people do for environmentalism at Hotchkiss. We hope it’s a springboard to engage in other ways.”
“Exactly,” Donohue continued. “Maybe it inspires students to sign up for environmental science classes, or join SEA, or get involved with the Woods Squad.”
For Sidran, now in her second year at Hotchkiss, one of her long-term priorities is building momentum for environmental work and creating more space for student involvement. “We offer opportunities for students to be involved in environmental work throughout the year, through curricular opportunities as well as clubs. But Eco Day is the one day we come together as a full School. It is our big day of service. So we continue to think about how we can provide students with more opportunities to engage in meaningful service acts throughout the year.”
Whether they arrive with an existing zest for environmentalism or develop an awareness that blossoms throughout their time at Hotchkiss, most students are interested in exploring these issues. The key to converting interest into action, Sidran believes, is providing structure and empowering students so they can achieve desired outcomes through their own initiatives. She praised the ongoing effort of students like Marcus Lam ‘23 who, upon learning that the School did not have an active composting program, took it upon himself to initiate the work to launch one. That process, which includes partnering with the Dining Hall as well as Building & Grounds, is work in progress.
“It really takes students who are passionate to light the fire,” Sidran said. “We want to create a feeling of cultural movement around sustainability here that is student engaged, not just on the periphery but actually them pushing it forward.”
View photos from Eco Day below, or go to the Flickr album.