Last fall, Jillian Barskey combined her love for the environment, and for Penn State, and served as a "Zero Waste Ambassador" at Beaver Stadium, an effort that encourages football fans in the hospitality suites to recycle or compost appropriate items.
While Barskey, of Wernersville, Pennsylvania, felt good about helping to make a difference inside of the stadium, she was troubled by what she saw outside -- glass bottles, plastic cups, soda cans, napkins, plastic utensils and such scattered across the fields -- left behind by revelers.
Though sustainable tailgating initiatives implemented by Penn State have made significant headway in curtailing game-day waste, Barskey aspires to reduce the amount of rubbish even more by serving as this year's student sustainability coordinator for Intercollegiate Athletics and Penn State's Sustainability Institute.
"Sustainable tailgating helps preserve the environment and keeps the University grounds clean and safe," said Barskey, a sophomore majoring in environmental resource management in the College of Agricultural Sciences. "It starts and ends with tailgaters. Working together, we have the potential to make every game a 'zero waste' outcome."
Barskey is leading the Tailgate Ambassadors, a troop of about 50 student volunteers, whose battle cry -- "reduce, reuse and recycle" -- will be heard repeatedly as they canvass the parking lots and fields, providing tailgaters with friendly reminders about available recycling resources and handing out blue recycling and clear trash bags.
After the crowds are gone, those same students will join hundreds of employees and volunteers from the Sustainability Institute, Athletics, the Penn State Office of Physical Plant, and the Centre County Recycling and Refuse Authority in picking up -- and separating -- trash and recyclables left behind. That can be a mammoth task, considering an average of 106,707 Penn State fans packed Beaver Stadium each game during the 2017 season, according to Doug Goodstein, associate director of student engagement for the Sustainability Institute.
He explained that the Tailgate Ambassadors program is modeled after an earlier student effort called Students Taking Action to Encourage Recycling, or STATERs for short. While the earlier initiative was focused solely on recycling, the new ambassadors take a more interactive approach by answering questions and helping fans settle in, while encouraging them to recycle. Goodstein said the team is excited to have Barskey and her can-do attitude at the helm.
The student crusaders are making progress, added Goodstein, who noted that during last season's White Out game on Oct. 21, which saw a record-breaking crowd of 110,823, their efforts aided in the collection of 61,920 pounds -- or 30.96 tons -- of recyclables.
"The Tailgate Ambassadors helped to increase the recyclables collected by 56 percent for that game compared to the White Out game in 2016," he said. "It proves what can be accomplished when people band together to make a difference."
Barskey agreed. "Some people don't realize how much it helps simply by placing garbage and recycling items in the appropriate bag," she said. "It's much easier to do this throughout the day instead of waiting until the end. We're here to help that happen."
Educating people about sustainable alternatives to plastics is especially important to Barskey, who pointed out that alternatives to using plastic straws and bags, such as paper straws and bags, "can greatly reduce pollution in our waters and improve the safety of aquatic life."
Her interest in the environment began at Conrad Weiser High School in Berks County, Pennsylvania, where she served as president of the school's FFA chapter. That involvement, along with an environmental science class, led her to take part in the Pennsylvania School for Excellence in the Agricultural Sciences at Penn State, a summer program for academically talented rising high school seniors.
There, she participated in an array of hands-on education and field trips. One of those excursions -- building riparian buffers along a local creek to prevent soil erosion -- played a pivotal role in her decision to study environmental resource management at Penn State.
Tammy Shannon, academic advising coordinator and instructor for the Environmental Resource Management program, led that exercise and recognized Barskey's drive and commitment from the get-go.
"Jillian has a passion for environmental issues and genuinely wants to contribute to solving natural resource concerns around the world," said Shannon. "She is an outstanding student leader who is engaged, motivated and wants to help other students get involved. I am confident that her efforts will make the stadium -- and University -- a safer, cleaner place."
In addition to serving on the Student Sustainability Advisory Council, being an Ag Advocate for the college and a member of Atlas, a student organization that raises money for THON, Barskey works as a research assistant for Jonathan Lynch, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Plant Science. She said the experience has expanded her understanding of soil and water quality, and that knowledge will be valuable when she lands her "dream job" of helping farmers and companies adopt sound environmental management practices.
"I hope that what I am doing will influence others to care about the environment and do their part to protect our food, water and air," Barskey said. "Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences have given me amazing opportunities for education, research and activities to help me grow. It's a close-knit community of incredible people who support students every step of the way."