Alum comes back to college after petitioning for job

by Martha Schick / Beacon Staff • October 17, 2013

Although Eric Van Vlandren, the college’s new campus sustainability coordinator, graduated in 1990 with a degree in political communications, he never lost touch with his Emerson roots.

 “I never left Emerson in the sense that I was always very proud to be from Emerson,” he said. Van Vlandren said he donated money when he could, and, while seeing a school play at his former high school in Vermont, convinced a girl to apply to and attend the college to study performing arts.

 Growing up, Van Vlandren said he was a mediocre student, describing himself as a jock in high school. He said he applied to Emerson to play club hockey and because he wanted to be in a city, but was only accepted provisionally for a semester because of his grades.

 “I don’t know if it was the classes I was taking or the environment … but I immediately became a much better student,” he said. He went on to become president of Phi Alpha Tau, Emerson’s oldest fraternity, and to win the President’s Award at Commencement.

The extent of his involvement at Emerson after graduating was small until the spring of 2010 when  former Beacon staffer Jesse Liebman, the president of Phi Alpha Tau at the time, contacted him to connect some of the current brothers with alumni who had fallen out of touch. 

“On a personal level, I wanted to pick his brain about what it was like to lead a group of gentlemen like the men in Tau,” Liebman said. Van Vlandren started attending events and becoming more active in the fraternity’s community, according to Liebman.

After reconnecting with the fraternity, Van Vlandren said he started pursuing the creation of a paid position that focused on the college’s sustainability. At the time, he said he was a self-employed independent consultant after leaving his managerial position at a composting facility.

“Taking my grandfather’s old adage of, ‘If you don’t see the job you want, create the job you want,’ I spent three years lobbying anybody who would listen [at the college],” said Van Vlandren.

He said he wrote a 40-page paper about the school’s sustainability, with the first half focusing on why the position should be created, and the second on why he should have the job. He said he presented the paper to former president Jacqueline Liebergott, President M. Lee Pelton, and eventually Jay Phillips, associate vice president for facilities and campus services.

Phillips said he reorganized his staff nine months after he was hired in April 2011, and one new position he wanted to create was a sustainability coordinator. As he was about to post the position, he was put in touch with Van Vlandren. While other candidates applied for the job, Phillips said Van Vlandren was the best applicant, and hired him in July.

“He shared with me this document he’d written,” Phillips said. “He talked a lot about his Emerson experience and his passion for the school and for sustainability.”

Phillips said that because there was already a staff panel working towards making the college more sustainablea panel he co-chairsVan Vlandren’s job is to help shepherd new ideas from members of the community to more productive levels, organizing and implementing them.

Van Vlandren also received a $25,000 budget from the school, while the sustainability panel didn’t have an official budget and relied on fundraising and departmental funds. Phillips said this budget allows Van Vlandren to concentrate on projects instead of raising funds.

 Since he was hired in July, Van Vlandren said he feels he has already taken tangible steps toward making the school more environmentally-friendly. One of these projects is a slow replacement of all of the college’s stationery, he said.

 Van Vlandren said he was given the same type of business card as every other professor and administrator when he arrived, which has a purple back and is printed on non-recycled, bleached paper with regular ink. He said he was uncomfortable with his own business cards appearing so wasteful, so he asked Emerson’s Print and Copy Center to switch them to recycled paper, and to use soy-based ink and a non-colored background. 

 He said the copy center told him to consult Chuck Dunham, director of creative services, and Andrew Tiedemann, vice president for communications and marketing, because the new business cards would affect the school’s branding. Working with Karen Dickinson, director of business services, they found an affordable design that met Van Vlandren’s criteria.

After the college agreed to switch not only his business cards, but also his letterhead and envelopes to less wasteful options, he said they have decided to do the same for everyone in the school as they run out of their own cards and stationery.

Van Vlandren has also started a program for the Emerson community to recycle their old computers. Anyone attending or working for the college can bring in a computer they no longer want, and the school will recycle it responsibly, instead of it going to a landfill.

He said he is also working on small changes, like changing the black plastic plates and utensils used at school events to more eco-friendly options made of wood and non-bleached paper. 

He has also created the new EcoRep position, a work-study job for students. The representatives try to make the dorms and campus in general more sustainable through educating the student body. Tori Gesualdo, a freshman communication studies major, is one of the representatives.

“[The EcoReps are] going to be helping in two major aspects, and that’s energy conservation and recycling,” she said.

According to Gesualdo, they meet with Van Vlandren once a week to discuss strategies and regroup. They have also attended team-building exercises, like rope courses.

Van Vlandren said he is happy to have been able to rejoin the Emerson community.

“Emerson can be transformative,” he said. “And I bleed purple.”