This post was written by Gie Wilson, a junior at IU Bloomington and current Global SDG Ambassador for IU Global.
On a Tuesday night in March, Dr. Elisheva (Elly) Cohen led a call-out meeting for IU students interested in mentoring elementary school students in Indiana. The fifth graders were participating in a class project centered on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a framework created by the United Nations to guide development across the world. Through 17 comprehensive goals that address the world’s most pressing issues the UN created an ambitious action plan for our planet designed to be completed by 2030.
I am one of the students who attended the callout and volunteered to be a mentor. I’m a junior at IU Bloomington studying environmental and sustainability studies with a concentration in environmental ethics and justice. I am primarily focused on how global and local development, especially sustainable development, affects not only humans, but their surrounding environment, in the present and future. I did not choose to be a mentor because I want to be an educator, but my passion for the SDGs compels me to do as much as I can to champion efforts that further the fight to make a difference in our world. That also explains why I became the Global SDG Ambassador for IU’s Office of the Vice President for International Affairs. Also, I was interested in how teachers integrate the SDGs into classrooms and hoped to gain more understanding about how similar techniques can be used to reach college students.
One of the things I am always driven to emphasize the most in my work is the interdisciplinary and intersectional nature of the SDGs. Many people hear the word, “sustainability” and associate it with recycling or paper straws, or other forms of environmentally focused sustainability. While the concept does promote those ideas, I have found that sustainability as a term and the SDGs as a framework encompass much more. From theatre, to journalism, to business, to music there is always a connection. Sustainable development is for all, not just some. If you are a human on planet earth, you have the credibility and the stakes to get involved.
This point is evident in the composition and backgrounds of the group of mentors for this SDG mentoring program. This year, we had a total of 10 mentors who varied from undergraduates to PhD students and were from the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering; the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design; the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs; the College of Arts and Sciences; and the School of Education. There was no particular field of study we all had in common, demonstrating the diversity of knowledge and experiences these students had access to. You don’t have to have a certain background or qualifications—or even be of a certain age—to be a successful mentor in the SDGs.
This is the third year that this program gave IU the opportunity to connect our university with elementary schools to enhance the curriculum. It all started when Elizabeth Bruder, the teacher from Willow Lake Elementary School in Indianapolis who runs the program, participated in a workshop run by the Title VI National Resource Centers at IU on the SDGs. These centers include the African Studies Program, the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, the Center for the Study of Global Change, the Center for the Study of the Middle East, the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, and the Robert F. Byrnes Russian and East European Institute. After the workshop, she received a fellowship from the centers to work to develop a unit on the SDGs, and this mentorship is the outcome of that work.
The elementary students I worked with over the course of four weeks were in fifth grade and were taught the general framework of the SDGs before we met. While the students were learning about the SDGs in their classrooms, the mentors were getting set up for the program through an orientation with Dr. Elly Cohen and a teacher from the school who taught us more about the curriculum and goals of the project.
In addition, SDG mentors were in charge of managing their meeting schedules and hosting the virtual meetings, ensuring that the meeting times align with the students’ class schedules over the course of four consecutive weeks. A few days before the program started mentors received the names and concentrations of their students. I had 3 students total and worked with them in groups of two for thirty minutes each week.
At the start of their project, students chose one SDG to focus on and a country. For example, my students all had a focus in SDG 3: Good Health and Well Being but approached it very differently. I had two students focusing specifically on air pollution, one in Pakistan and one in India, as well as one more focusing on reducing infant and youth mortality in Pakistan. By getting to see the same students every week, mentors learned personalities, learning styles, and interests and tailored their approach to the needs of each student.
My students came to these meetings equipped with packets and lots of questions. I was impressed by the complexity of their knowledge as well as the intuitive understanding of its importance. When I told one of them that I didn’t know what the SDGs were until my freshman year at IU and that many college students still don’t know what they are, she was astounded and a bit outraged.
Mentors were given a list of topics they could use to gauge the current levels of understanding the students had and help them take the next steps in their research. Some of my students were more oriented towards understanding the mechanics of the issue, while others wanted to explore why it mattered. Students were encouraged to reach out to experts in the field, and I was surprised to see how excited the students were to make these connections with community members. Since the research I dealt with centered on Good Health and Wellbeing, a lot of students ended up talking to local doctors or nurses. Their takeaways gave authenticity to the research by breaking down barriers that can sometimes keep us far removed from the tough issues.
By focusing on the SDGs in foreign nations, the program made the local to global connection that is critical to the mission of the UN SDG framework. They were creating international connections, building empathy, and gaining a greater understanding of other cultures by learning about their practices. One of my students spent a good deal of time learning about how people in other countries have similar economies and industrial practices and standards, and sometimes better than ours in the U.S. These are just a few of the examples of how interconnected and wide-reaching something like the concept of “sustainability” can be.
At a young age, these students were interested, excited, and readily identifying why sustainability matters to them and their future in a much more tangible way than memorizing a slogan or reading a textbook. One of my students wants to be a pediatrician which is why she chose Good Health and Wellbeing to examine further. They learned about how complex the interactions in these issues can be. By raising the next generation to be curious, insightful, and active global citizens the likelihood that global frameworks such as the SDGs will be met increases. Applying this newfound knowledge to a real-world scenario was an integral part of this program as well.
In our final meeting, students prepared to give a persuasive speech to their classmates on why their chosen SDG should be funded. They put together PowerPoint slide decks with data as well as photos to show their class why this mattered. The class then voted, and finalists advanced to a school wide presentation. This not only motivated the students to do their research throughout the duration of the unit, but also got them excited to share what they had learned while working on their public speaking skills. With so many bright and insightful students, the competition was steep. In mid-May their persuasive speeches were live streamed, and the next day the winning speeches were presented at a mock UN Summit open to the community during the SDG Fair at Willow Lake Elementary School. All mentors were invited.
The students weren’t the only ones learning and growing from this experience: My communication skills were bolstered thanks to my time with these students. While I get experience talking to college students and academics about the SDGs, it is rare that I get to connect with the next generation. This allowed me to learn what techniques and methods were most effective for speaking with people of a different age level and knowledge base than I am acclimated to. Additionally, I often speak to people in a group setting, but this interaction allowed me to tailor my conversation to the individual student. By making this a smaller interaction, I was able to work with students on their research and critical thinking skills, which would’ve been harder had it been a larger group. Overall, this group of students gave me hope.
This mentoring program catered to people of all levels and relied on the passion of participants more than knowledge. I wish I had known about sustainable development or the SDGs before coming to IU, and I am determined to share this information with as many people as possible. This was a fantastic opportunity to share with students early on in their education so they can integrate the principles of the UN SDGs into their lives, with their families, and in their career choices. By bringing mentors into the classroom, it left us with a better understanding of how these concepts are being taught to the next generation, as well as how to be better advocates of sustainable development by tailoring an approach to the causes near and dear to individuals. Often, it can feel disheartening to speak to people about sustainability as many have made their minds up on their place in the system. However, these students came in with an open and fresh mind, giving me optimism about the future of sustainable development.