A student uses his energy and creativity to engage the UI community in a 21st century environmental movement.
Growing up in rural Iowa and Illinois, Eric Holthaus spent a lot of time climbing trees and playing outside.
The University of Iowa student’s love of the outdoors led him to become a leader in a budding environmental movement on campus—and placed the graduating senior at the forefront of one of the most significant issues of his generation.
“Now is an exciting time to be living and to have something that’s worth fighting for,” he says. “No one really has wrong ideas about sustainability because it’s so new, there’s so much to learn and do.”
Holthaus entered The University of Iowa on a pre-medicine track. But he started to reconsider his goals after taking a first-year seminar about Gandhian thought and its 21st century applications, taught by Tom Walz, professor emeritus of social work.
“It was one of those classes where you walk out and hold your head a little higher because you feel refreshed,” Holthaus says. “It made me feel like I needed to care about what I was going to be doing in the future.”
He changed his major to geography during sophomore year because it touched on issues that mattered to him: population growth, environmental catastrophes, and social justice.
In one of his geography classes, he sat next to Kyle Sieck, a junior who was president of the UI Environmental Coalition. Sieck invited Holthaus to a meeting.
The student group had been around since the late 1980s, but lately was small and little known. Just six people showed up to that first meeting. But the student leaders were determined to reinvigorate the group, and Holthaus was drawn to the cause.
Though he had little leadership experience, Holthaus volunteered to become vice president of the group. His dad, a human resources specialist, had imparted to him the importance of standing out from the crowd by having leadership experience on his résumé.
Holthaus and other group members brainstormed creative, practical ways to educate the UI community and make a lasting impact. Most important, they wanted to make environmental activism fun, in part by incorporating an appreciation of the outdoors.
Through his work with the Environmental Coalition, Holthaus got to know Dave Jackson in Facilities Management, who taught him the importance of strong communication skills, having long- and short-term goals, and building relationships with stakeholders.
“Part of the challenge—and the part I enjoy— is spreading a message as best we can to make people care about it,” Holthaus says. “It’s important to do that in a genuine way. Dave has been reiterating that to me for a few years now.”
In recent years, the UI Environmental Coalition has launched a Green Consulting initiative, in which group members offer tips to student groups and local businesses about green living, showing that small behavior changes like turning off computers can make a difference.
They’ve stepped up recycling efforts on campus, applying for grants that paid for more recycling bins in public spaces.
Working with IMU Food Services and Facilities Management, the group is managing a campus vegetable garden, where students raise an array of organic edibles that could be incorporated into food venues around campus in the future.
Group members have also teamed up with Facilities Management and City Carton—the local recycling provider—to sort through garbage in designated campus buildings, showing how much waste sent to landfills could actually be recycled.
The initiatives have drawn more interest in the UI Environmental Coalition, of which Holthaus is now the senior co-president. This year, the group regularly sees some 30 students at its meetings. And the group recently earned a Hawkeye Award from the UI Office of Student Life for an outstanding student organization of the year.
”You are your own limit, that’s what I try to impart on students at our meetings,” Holthaus says. “It’s really kind of a spontaneous gathering and we’re trying to plug people into as many opportunities as possible. We try to find that spark that may trigger them to really care about something.”
Holthaus has also been busy leaving his mark on other campus sustainability projects. He spearheaded a plan for the Sustainable Living-Learning Community that will be offered in the residence halls beginning in fall 2010. Students in the co-ed community will be able to bond over common interests in the environment, share sustainable living practices, manage the vegetable garden, and plan camping and hiking excursions.
In spring 2008, Holthaus met Liz Christiansen, then deputy director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, when she spoke to his geography class about career opportunities at the DNR. He followed up by sending her a résumé, and soon found himself with a summer internship in the DNR’s Air Quality Bureau.
This year, he was hired to become the first intern in the new UI Office of Sustainability, which Christiansen now directs.
Holthaus plans to enter a graduate program next year in urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois – Champaign/Urbana. He’d like to some day play a role in planning sustainable, pedestrian-friendly urban areas. Or maybe become a politician, continuing to inspire others to appreciate and take care of the natural world.
“He’s a person of great energy and enthusiasm,” Christiansen says. “He has a real desire to know and understand. Whenever you see that intellectual curiosity combined with creativity, you know that’s someone special.”
Story by Madelaine Jerousek-Smith; photo by Tim Schoon.
Related link: UI Environmental Coalition
April 20, 2009