Sustainability star

UofSC alumna helps Columbia achieve national recognition as environmental leader

Morgan Hughes traces her commitment for improving the environment to elementary school.

“When I was growing up, we didn’t have recycling bins at school, and we did at home,” she says. “I remember asking ‘where does the paper go?’”

Her time at the University of South Carolina fueled Hughes’ inquisitive nature and inspired her to look for creative solutions to protect the planet. The December 2017 graduate of the Master of Earth and Environmental Resources Management program (MEERM) is already making a difference, starting with the city where she spent her college and graduate school years.

Hughes, who received an undergraduate degree in business administration from Carolina, played a key role in the city of Columbia’s recent national recognition as a sustainability leader. South Carolina’s capital city was designated a 3-STAR community by the nonprofit organization that evaluates livability and sustainability of U.S. cities. It’s the first in the Palmetto State to receive STAR certification.

The comprehensive rating system is based on a community’s performance on more than 500 measures covering areas from climate to walkability. The certification has concrete benefits for Columbia, including qualifying the city for substantial grant programs and increasing its competitive ranking.

“Morgan had the task of contacting city staff and community partners to find information about each of these measures,” says Mary Pat Baldauf, sustainability facilitator for the City of Columbia. “The STAR materials were daunting and a bit overwhelming, but Morgan was fearless and quite enthusiastic in her pursuit of the information.”

Hughes began the project on the first day of her internship with the city in May 2017, and her work culminated with a presentation to Columbia City Council in late December. The city learned of its 3-STAR rating on Dec. 5, 2017.

In addition to her graduate work, Hughes credits experience with Green Leadership through Sustainable Carolina and earning Graduation with Leadership Distinction in preparing her for the internship and successful project delivery to elected leaders.

“It was a little bit scary, but it was exciting,” Hughes says of presenting to city council. “At the same time, you are the only one who knows the data inside and out so you can’t be nervous.”

Hughes’ enthusiasm was contagious in the city’s Public Works Department, according to Baldauf, who supervised the internship. She sees the partnership as having lasting benefits for both her office and students in the MEERM program.

“Sustainability is a relatively new field, and positions are developing every day. Because most of us in the field were schooled in other disciplines, we were on a learning curve for sustainable practices and technologies,” Baldauf says. “Students like Morgan are getting a head start with the knowledge, and the internships help develop and refine good real-world skills.”

Training students to meet workforce needs of government agencies and industries focused on energy, water, land and wildlife management is one the MEERM program’s key goals. Part of the College of Arts and Sciences’ School of Earth, Ocean and Environment, the program began 30 years ago and added the internship sequence in 2010. It blends a knowledge of science, business and policy to ensure well-rounded professional preparation.

“It’s not enough for the students to be competent in the lab,” says Jennifer Pournelle, research associate professor and director the MEERM program’s internship option. “They have to figure out how what they are studying interacts with policy and business.”

Pournelle advised Hughes throughout her program of studies and introduced the student to her project’s faculty mentor, geography professor Kirstin Dow and internship supervisor Baldauf. Pournelle said she had gut intuition that Hughes’ project management skills and personable nature would make her the perfect fit for the STAR certification project. 

“Morgan was very self-directed in her thinking,” Pournelle says. “She knew where she wanted to go, she knew how to ask for the help she needed, and she knew how to follow through.”

Share this Story! Let friends in your social network know what you are reading about