Konrad Schlarbaum heads a first-of-its-kind sustainability program at Pikes Peak Community College.
A Colorado native, Schlarbaum wasn’t particularly concerned with environmental issues while growing up in Aurora. But his family did a lot of skiing and hiking, and instilled in young Konrad a love and respect for the state’s outdoor grandeur. When he was in middle school, the family moved to Grand Junction to escape the Denver area’s bumper-to-bumper traffic headed to the mountains.
After high school graduation, Schlarbaum served in the U.S. Army for 4½ years. He supported NATO in Belgium for two years and then went to Iraq. Upon his return, he attended a community college in Grand Junction, which was absorbed by Colorado Mesa University, planning to major in business. But after transferring to the University of Northern Colorado, he took a sustainable living class that changed his trajectory.
“It opened my eyes to what my habits were and how that impacts the world,” he said. “The U.S. population represents 5 percent of the world’s population, but we consume 25 percent of the world’s resources.
“I barely graduated from high school — I failed algebra twice. I had to take five developmental education courses to get into college-level math and English. I was just unprepared … but I just flourished. I graduated at UNC at the top of my class.”
Schlarbaum, 34, now is working toward a master’s degree in professional science via an online program through Unity College in Maine.
Besides his work at PPCC, he chairs the steering committee of Green Cities Coalition, a grassroots organization that encourages partnerships and collaboration among people and organizations working for sustainability in the Pikes Peak region. He and his wife have a 2½-year-old son and are expecting another boy next month.
Were you familiar with the Colorado Springs area before you moved here? What drew you here?
I wasn’t familiar with the area, but I went here on leave from Iraq and stayed at The Broadmoor just because I wanted to celebrate with my family. My family came from Grand Junction, and they were like, ‘Why aren’t you coming home? Why are you coming to Colorado Springs?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m really interested in Colorado Springs. I’ve never been there and I’ve heard so much, you know, like Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak, and I’m like, wow, this would be a great place to go.’ It seemed like a vacation from Iraq.
So I came over here and became really interested. What really drew me here was the job, but other than that, I’ve just grown to really love this place. It was everything I wanted from Denver but didn’t have, as far as being close to the mountains and being able to access the mountains in a fairly decent amount of time, and not as much of this hustle and bustle of a big metropolitan city like Denver.
So I felt like it’s a slower pace, and still there are things happening here: like the Olympic Museum, the Air Force Academy and the military bases. That’s the other thing [that drew me here]: When I applied for this job, I put it in my cover letter that 25 percent of our students are veterans, and I’m a veteran. I would say close to 50 percent of our students are nontraditional, and I was nontraditional. I went to college when I was 23 years old; I had a full-time job working at an IT company in Grand Junction while going to college. So I just feel like I really resonate with the students and their experience.
Talk about how the sustainability program came about at PPCC.
A friend of mine, Drew Johnson, … started the program back in 2010 when he was student government president. It grew out of this need for recycling. It wasn’t a collegewide program — it was kind of piecemeal, [but they found] in order to run a recycling program effectively there needed to be a sustainability coordinator. It’s a student-funded program. The students pay 38 cents per credit hour to fund my position and a small budget. This particular fee is unique in that it’s voted on every five years. So you could say I’m the only student-elected official, other than student government, and I’m full-time staff as well.
This is the only community college in the state of Colorado with a sustainability office and full-time coordinator. There are other kinds of programs; Colorado Mountain College, for example, has an academic program but no office of sustainability, and at the Auraria campus in Denver, Metro State University, the Community College of Denver and the University of Colorado Denver share a sustainability office. But this is the only one of its kind in terms of a standalone office and sustainability coordinator dedicated to one community college.
I’m the second coordinator. The first coordinator took the reins initially in 2011. I started Dec. 1, 2013. We’re not the most sustainable institution of higher education in the state — we’re working within the state system, and there’s a big difference in the amount of resources and number of students we serve [compared with four-year universities]. But we are the forerunners in sustainability when it comes to practicing it for a community college.
What does your job as coordinator entail?
It’s quite comprehensive. … I work with a team of students, and I serve all three campuses. We’re looking at integrating what we call interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary thinking in the classroom, since that’s our bread and butter as a college. I go into classrooms and present sustainability. Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs is the Brundtland [Commission’s] definition of sustainability. And in order to accomplish that, you need social sciences, you need physical sciences, you need business and economics, and you need the government and policy. So sustainability is relevant to any discipline because there are resources involved that can be managed more effectively and more efficiently.
I mentioned the Brundtland definition, but really a more succinct way of thinking about sustainability is the triple bottom line, which is economic, social and environmental. An initiative that saves money needs the economic component; the social, like corporate social responsibility where employees feel supported and customers feel like they’ve gotten a good experience; and the environmental end, just being good stewards of our resources and how we can reduce our resource footprint.
One of the things that I do is look at where we can improve upon energy efficiency and water conservation and where we can take advantage of some of our landscape. So projects may take a while to come to fruition. That means that I do a lot of research and a lot of work to ensure that they are as well supported as they can be. My goal for the office is to create a culture of sustainability at PPCC that lives well beyond any sustainability coordinator.
What are some of the projects you’re working on or have worked on?
Although we may not have the funds to do these grandiose projects, we plant little seeds, in hopes that it can grow from there and be nurtured by the college as a whole. We have a courtyard that I’m working to transform into a food forest [where] some of our students who are food insecure could grab a snack on their way to class. …
We also do lifestyle workshops, and we have a recycling competition here in the rotunda. We’re partnering with Who Gives a Scrap for students to design artwork from otherwise discarded materials. Students will be able to display their work in a juried art show [March 1]. We were the first to install LED lights on this campis, and since then, the college has accepted it as a collegewide policy moving forward.
What advice do you have for other young professionals?
If I had any advice for sustainability professionals in the community, it would be the value of looking for opportunities to work together to help maximize our influence. To other young professionals, I would say, look to see how sustainability can be integrated in the work that you do. Sustainability can be a significant and powerful tool to use as they move forward in their careers. And yes, it is relevant to what you’re doing. It isn’t just for environmentalists. What are auto mechanics doing to think about green technology with regard to automobiles? In culinary arts, local food? If you’re an economist, how can we put a value on nonmarket goods? How can we continue on this growth trajectory when our resources are limited? Those are some fundamental questions we’re going to have to wrestle with.
Where do you see your career going from here?
Part of my aspirations for the community college here is to grow my capacity to serve the college and the students who come here, and to encourage other community colleges to get on board with sustainability as a core business value. I love being a practitioner right now, but I do see myself eventually as one of those professors who could inspire others and move the field forward. I love research, and I’ve published a paper. There’s also opportunities for looking at working for a city or getting more diverse experience, like business experience — how to incorporate sustainability into a city or into a business.
What is your personal mantra — something that drives what you do?
I think in general it’s just being optimistic and inspiring. We can get so down on ourselves about the outlook for climate change. I just try to take advantage of every opportunity and, whenever faced with adversity, to be optimistic and go about my work as though it has the potential to inspire others.