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New Mexico State University

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NMSU's sustainability manager has 'best job on campus'

Date: 07/01/2013

Growing up in the 60s, joni newcomer admits, she was oblivious to the concept of sustainability.

A woman holds a sculpture made from reused materials such as aluminum cans.
NMSU Environmental Policy and Sustainability Program Manager joni newcomer shows off the Green Award made from reused material such as aluminum cans. The award will be given to departments that demonstrate a commitment to reduce, reuse and recycle. (Photo by Isabel Rodriguez)

"We didn't have that consciousness," said newcomer, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) accredited professional and manager of NMSU's environmental policy and sustainability program since 2010. "I was born passionate about Mother Nature. It was just called love; it wasn't called sustainability."

When she began her post almost three years ago, newcomer had no predecessor to turn to for advice. The position is one she created, with the help of Glenn Haubold, NMSU assistant vice president for facilities. Half her salary is paid for by the savings accrued by the department's efforts in energy savings. She previously worked as project manager at NMSU's Office of Facilities and Services.

"My passion for the environment, driven by a life-long interest in camping, hiking and the outdoors translated into the position," she said, adding that her goals were to cut energy use and energy costs.

Though they seem similar, she explained, cost is about examining when energy is being utilized, while use is about changing behavior - such as turning off the lights when no one's in the room and unplugging devices not in use.

"Between noon and 6 p.m. from June to August, we are charged five times more per kilowatt hour," she said. "I tell people that if they're going to do a big experiment that's going to use a lot of energy, please don't do it between those hours."

When trying to persuade others of the importance of conserving energy, newcomer tries to appeal to their common sense. In August 2012, for example, NMSU's energy bill was more than $600,000. newcomer hopes to reduce that figure by 25 percent.

"People need an incentive to do things," she said. "If you knew that every time you went to the store and used a reusable bag and didn't put plastic into the environment, which kills a lot of animals because they're eating plastic bags, that's an incentive to do well."

An example of an incentive for people turning off their energy is that energy bill from last August.

"If you knew that by reducing the bill you could buy more textbooks, computer equipment or have a greater salary, it becomes personal ... because the first bill that gets paid is the power bill - not your salary, not computers, not furniture," she said.

"Now that 97 percent of climate scientists are saying that climate change is caused by humans, I try to get people to understand that this problem isn't going away," newcomer said. "I try to educate people with facts. Pretty soon we won't be able to ignore them."

Many of newcomer's efforts are focused on appealing to the student population. She works closely with student organizations, explaining that they are graduating into a different world and it will be up to them to take care of it.

She described Las Cruces as "so far behind" in going green, in comparison to nationwide efforts. To gain more momentum, she explained, there must be support from administration.

Despite newcomer's uphill battle to see NMSU go green, she remains optimistic and often boasts about having the best job on campus.

"It's fun, frustrating and exciting," she said. "I am fortunate enough to have blended all of my interests into one opportunity to be able to foster connecting people communitywide in the belief that our planet should be treated with love and care to ensure that the resources and natural beauty we enjoy today are available for many generations to come."

A Kansas native, newcomer grew up on a ranch, near a lake surrounded by animals. She was raised to be resourceful.

She earned her first degree in interior architecture from Arizona State University and spent her early career space planning and designing education and medical facilities.

"The first 20 years of my career I was working on schools, hospitals and government facilities doing commercial design," she said. "When I moved here, I took the job as project manager managing the construction and remodeling of buildings. As a LEED-AP, that helps me manage how we build green buildings."

As the sustainability manager, newcomer said she continues to educate herself while trying to teach others the importance of sustainability.

She works closely with the Sustainability Council, which strives to incorporate and foster sustainability on campus. The volunteer group meets the second Wednesday of each month at 8:30 a.m. in Milton Hall, room 85.

"I want students to be more radical," newcomer said. "We need to have more of an activists' group."

Additionally, she hopes to educate people about sustainability efforts that go beyond recycling.

"If you look at the recycling arrows, it's 'reduce, reuse and recycle,' and everyone forgets the other two. You cannot reduce waste if you're buying the bottle and then recycling it - you're still putting waste into the planet. You have to reduce your waste first. And then, ideally, if you have something, you've reused it. The point is to not put things in the landfill. People talk about throwing things away - it's not away, it's still there. You have to not purchase it in the first place."

Last year, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education recognized NMSU's sustainability program with a gold rating in its Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System.

AASHE looked at three categories to determine NMSU's rating: operations, education and research and planning, administration and engagement.

When asked what her future goals for the department were, newcomer said they haven't changed. She remains committed to educating herself and others on sustainability initiatives such as transportation and energy and waste reduction.

Though she said she's often made fun of because of her commitment to sustainability, she has no plans to change.

"I'm not your average bear," she said.

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