From left: Jorge Mayen Herrera, Taya Coates, Dymond Haynes, Kirsten Gladys Quinanola and Johnny Tran.
From left: Jorge Mayen Herrera, Taya Coates, Dymond Haynes, Kirsten Gladys Quinanola and Johnny Tran. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Neo-Environmental student organization advocates for and brings attention to green practices

The group hopes to influence VCU’s environmental rating through awareness-raising signage as well as collaboration with eco-friendly companies and VCU’s Office of Sustainability.

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Blue and green stickers by the entrances to a half-dozen buildings around Virginia Commonwealth University aim to bring awareness to the energy usage in those that are rated LEED Silver and above by the U.S. Green Building Council.

The signs in the McGlothlin Medical Education Center, West Grace Street Housing, the Molecular Medicine Research Building, Cary Street Gym, the Academic Learning Commons and the Rice Rivers Center education building feature a QR code that leads to the VCU Office of Sustainability’s website with specific environmental information for each facility.

The sticker initiative was developed last year by members of VCU’s Neo Environmental Organization (NEO) and is meant to highlight the buildings’ environmental qualities, including access to public transportation, stormwater management design, quantity and quality control, methods of reducing the heat island effect, on-site renewable energy, and water-efficient landscaping.

"We started this initiative to be mindful of climate change and the fact that the environment is something that we take from and is a part of our life cycle as well as making sure we preserve,” said Dymond Haynes, president of NEO and a senior majoring in business management with a concentration in entrepreneurship in the School of Business.

Wyatt Carpenter, projects and program coordinator in VCU’s Office of Sustainability, worked with Haynes and the NEO board.

“A lot of the sustainability features in buildings are behind the scenes,” Carpenter said. “They're in a basement or behind walls and people can't see them. These stickers cue people into building sustainability features and it gives them a way to learn about them without having to tour down in the basement or up on the rooftop.”

A community-forming club 

Last year, while studying remotely, Haynes and her friends and VCU classmates Jorge Mayen Herrera, Kirsten Gladys Quinanola and Johnny Tran, who all had attended Meadowbrook High School in Chesterfield County together, decided to create the Neo Environmental Organization. They had found, with classes mostly asynchronous and all remote, that it was difficult to find a sense of belonging at VCU. Creating the student organization let them focus on environmental innovation and change through projects, reforms and company partnerships while also connecting with classmates and VCU. 

“We should be aware of how much energy we're using and be more efficient,” said Quinanola, a junior majoring in medical laboratory sciences in the College of Health Professions.

Haynes, who was interested in philanthropy and being part of a social movement, was also learning on her own about sustainability and eliminating single-use items. She created the club so students like her could have an opportunity to practice project management methods they are learning in classes. NEO also seeks opportunities to work with commercial partners. 

Taking action themselves, the club’s founders carpool to campus when their schedules allow. All are also trying to encourage ecological practices in their homes. Tran, a senior majoring in business management and minoring in marketing in the School of Business, replaced all his family’s lightbulbs with LED lighting. Mayen Herrera’s family is trying to use fewer plastic water bottles. Quinanola’s family makes an effort to recycle. 

They all believe they can have an impact at VCU and in Richmond. 

Creating a sustainable future

Neo Environmental Organization will also have a student representative on the university’s sustainability planning committee.

“The university is in the early phases of developing the ONE VCU Sustainability Plan,” Carpenter said. “Seeking students' views and input on what they would like to see the university do in terms of sustainability will be an important part of the process.”

The plan will be a comprehensive road map to guide sustainability goals and policies at VCU and VCU Health System. The process to develop the plan will begin in the spring semester and actively seek the vast expertise of VCU students, faculty, staff, team members and the local community by offering multiple opportunities to ask questions and share ideas. 

Meanwhile, Haynes and her team invite other VCU students who are passionate about the environment to join them in advocating for VCU and Richmond to pursue more ecologically friendly approaches to buildings and products, both visibly and behind the scenes. 

Last semester, the student organization held monthly in-person and Zoom meetings, and membership grew to about 30 active members. Haynes hopes students across campus continue to join the group to pursue environmentally friendly policies, linking to like-minded companies to innovate or push for reforms. 

“We are actively looking for partners,” Haynes said. “But within the VCU community, we [also] are looking to collaborate with other environmental orgs and have a huge Earth Day event to bring [these issues] to the community’s attention.”