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Student Sustainability Associates: Empowering Students, Enriching Communities

Sustainability at Harvard's Schools and Units

By RuiLin Guo (MBA ’25)

When I was five years old, my path to school led me through a park filled with colorful birds, from raucous blue jays to mohawk-clad cardinals. I was hooked. From then on, nature – and with it, environmental protection – became a core part of my life. I continued my sustainability journey with undergraduate degrees in Environmental Science and Business, a stint as a park ranger leading guided hikes, and a long-term volunteer role supporting bird research stations. When I came to Harvard Business School, I knew I wanted to continue sharing my passion for sustainability as a Student Sustainability Associate (SSA).

I believe that business has a vital role to play in the climate crisis. Prior to HBS, my career in brand management at Johnson & Johnson enabled me to incorporate sustainability into consumer brand strategies, including transitioning to post-consumer recycled plastic and reducing packaging waste. I also spearheaded a waste management initiative for the Canadian office that saved 80,000 plastic bags. In parallel, I worked part-time for a grassroots environmental non-profit, Sierra Club Canada Foundation, and co-chaired their national communications committee. Through these experiences, I learned the importance of influencing decision-makers in order to drive change – and that’s what SSAs can do at HBS with their fellow future business leaders.

The SSA program has been running since 2006 and is an opportunity to work with HBS Operations, students, staff, faculty, and community partners to promote sustainability initiatives on and off campus. As an SSA, I focused on environmental justice and social equity, increasingly important topics rooted in ensuring everyone has access to a healthy environment and that environmental benefits and burdens are fairly distributed. It is grounded in the right to clean air, land, water, and food for all, as well as equitable participation in decision-making processes. I and another SSA, Seamus Bann, worked on an independent project about increasing student volunteer engagement with local environmental justice organizations.

What started as a simple plan to highlight community opportunities became a bigger adventure as we worked to untangle a complex ecosystem of community engagement at Harvard. Our exploration of the Harvard community engagement landscape revealed more than 140 non-profit and community partners across Boston – highlighting both the richness of opportunities and challenges of coordination within Harvard’s expansive network. It was an interesting challenge to identify the diverse Harvard stakeholders responsible, status of partnerships, ways for students to participate, and examples of best-in-class models for engagement.

Amid these intricacies, we identified actionable recommendations aimed at fostering meaningful student involvement. In the short term, we proposed enhancing student involvement through initiatives such as connecting sustainability leaders within HBS, engaging potential partner organizations, structuring specific opportunities, integrating projects into the SA volunteer calendar, and fielding surveys for evaluation. We also ran a campaign partnering with HBS volunteer leaders to encourage students to volunteer with the annual Charles River Cleanup. Looking ahead, we recommended long-term strategies including fostering connections between community engagement leaders across Harvard and establishing a centralized, cross-school community engagement clearinghouse. These efforts aim to break down silos between Harvard schools, fostering durable partnerships and providing students with meaningful avenues to contribute to environmental justice and social equity initiatives.

I enjoyed my time as an SSA immensely. It was a valuable learning experience, exposing me not only to diverse facets of sustainability, but also to a warm, passionate community of environmental and social impact-oriented people committed to driving positive change. If you’re looking to make an impact as an incoming student at HBS, I encourage you to apply as an SSA!

The SSA program is supported by HBS Operations and offers a flexible time commitment (3-5 hours/week) at $21/hour and is open to all HBS RC students. SSAs have the opportunity to network with like-minded MBAs, test their leadership skills and make an impact here at HBS, all while earning some cash. For questions or to apply for an SSA position, please visit the SSA website for more information or email Hear from another former SSA, Genesia Tang, about her experience with the program.