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Commencement Celebration Maintains Sustainability Momentum 

“The energy in the air and happiness was palpable, stretching throughout the entirety of the Danforth Campus,” senior director of Commencement and Convocation, Michelle Gelven, reflected on WashU’s 162nd Commencement. The day was memorable for a number of exciting reasons. Esteemed guests addressed the graduating classes: Emmy Award-winning actor and St. Louis native, Sterling K. Brown addressed the undergraduate and graduate students and medical adviser to seven U.S. presidents, Dr. Anthony Fauci addressed the group of new medical graduates. (If you haven’t already, we highly recommend checking out the sweet photo of him shaking the hand of a graduate holding her baby.)  

The reimagined Commencement Festival had record attendance this year, shared Gelven. The festival timespan was lengthened by two hours from last year to allow more time for graduates and guests to make their way across campus and savor the diverse dining offerings of local food vendors.  

The festival celebrated the St. Louis food and entertainment scene by highlighting student favorites like Seoul Taco, as well as local staples like Ted Drewes and Pappy’s. The Commencement team worked with their friends at Dining Services to showcase a vast array of local food. Gelven shared the motivation for incorporating so much local food variety, “We really wanted our students and guests to enjoy all that St. Louis has to offer, and for those traveling in town from afar, to experience food from places their graduates have likely been telling them about for years.” 

Supporting local food procurement and businesses is also a key feature of the event’s sustainability practices. Gelven pointed out that sustainability remains a top priority for the Commencement team. Several new initiatives built on a long legacy of environmental leadership. For example, for the first time, there was no printed Commencement program, saving thousands of pages of paper. Instead, QR codes linked attendees to digital layouts of the program. 

The Commencement team also found a way around providing containers of water to guests by introducing nine hydration stations where guests could fill water bottles or compostable cups. Outdoor hydration stations designed for events eliminated 30,000 cartons of boxed water, as well as the required refrigeration and transportation of all of those containers. “After years of struggling to find a better solution for avoiding plastic bottled water while still meeting the needs of thousands of visitors in Missouri’s May heat, this novel solution demonstrates that other ways are possible,” celebrated Cassie Hage, assistant director of the Office of Sustainability  

With the continued warming of the planet, incorporating more sustainable ways to continue celebrating special occasions will become increasingly critical. Through public demonstrations of alternative approaches at the most high-profile and visible events, WashU is prioritizing the planet while celebrating the students who make this place so extraordinary.   

The event sustainability efforts would not be possible without the collaboration of the HES custodial team, the Facilities Department, earthday385, and the numerous WashU employees who volunteered at waste stations. The Office of Sustainability commends the Commencement team for their vision and leadership in this space!

The Commencement team is always open to feedback, so if you have ideas on how to make elements of Commencement more sustainable, please share them with Michelle Gelven.

Further reading: 

Sustainable Commencement Celebrations  

Zero Waste Commencement resource page  

WashU’s 161st Commencement Showcases Sustainability 

Sustainability at WashU’s 2021 Commencement  

Green Event Certification  

WashU’s Bottled Water Policy