An Extraordinary Class Deserves an Extraordinary Ending

Massey Whorley and David SieversOften times a class is simply that – something that you go to, read for, and potentially even contribute to.  But what happens when a class goes well beyond that?  What happens when a class becomes an obsession, something your friends are tired of hearing about, even though you never tire of talking about it?  What happens when the test for a class isn’t written, but is measured by your success in creating and advocating meaningful policy?  What happens when the class matters to you and you matter to the class?

Simply stated, this is the story of the three students in Maria Ivanova’s Spring 2007 Climate Change class.

The first day of class started like any other first day of a class – we reviewed the syllabus.  Half-way through explaining the structure of the class Maria looked at the three of us, and asked, “What do you want to do with this class?”  We had the option of taking the planned route that would culminate with a lengthy paper, but instead we blazed a new trail.  We chose to take on a project that would ultimately structure the entire semester and well beyond…

We elected, with Maria’s consent, to go beyond merely reading and discussing the literature by forming policy using the knowledge gained from the class.  As a result, we prepared a 70 page policy proposal for President Gene Nichol recommending that he sign the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. 

As a signatory to the PCC, William and Mary would assume full responsibility for the Carbon Dioxide it emits by committing to a plan to become carbon neutral.  This level of commitment would make William and Mary a leader in the Commonwealth and beyond in addressing what has become and will remain the most prominent global issue in the 21st century. 

On May 2nd, our class presented the proposal to a receptive and interested President Nichol, and although he has yet to sign it, we have high hopes that he will act upon William and Mary’s need to be a leader in environmental sustainability, as it is an overarching and cross-cutting issue that provides the interface between global and local.

The culmination of most classes is finishing your paper or taking the final; however, no simple ending would do justice to our class.  Instead, with the gracious funding of the TJPPP, we traveled to New York to take part in the Commission on Sustainable Development at the UN.  While at the UN we were able to see new Secretary General Ban Ki-moon address the entire UN General Assembly. 

During his speech, Ban Ki-moon announced that addressing Climate Change is at the top of his agenda, and as such he has appointed an unprecedented three top advisors to assist his efforts.  Among the three is the former Prime Minister of Norway, Mrs. Gro Harlem Brundtland, who during her speech committed her home country of Norway to becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

While it was inspiring to hear these figures speak, what was far more interesting was to be privy to the actual policy deliberations that occurred in the two major working groups.  Although the debate over the text was at times arduous, what was clear is that everyone involved now realizes Climate Change is a serious problem. 

Beyond the walls of the General Assembly and the conference rooms there was a myriad of side events and presentations about the roadblocks experienced, the progress made, and the path for future action.  However, there was also the amazing opportunity to network with individuals from all over the country and the world who were working on the same issues and facing the same problems.  It is now my understanding that these connections are the true ground work for public policy.

An ordinary class deserves an ordinary ending, but an extraordinary class has no ending.  The lessons learned from this educational experience will transcend our time at William and Mary, as will the policy we helped to create.