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The Making of an Environmentalist

Rosanise Odell on the steps of the Utah State Capitol, accepting Westminster’s award for clean-air efforts.

Westminster student creates lasting change, leading to a more sustainable campus

by Kerry Case, Environmental Center director and assistant provost for integrative learning


A group of sixth graders at Morningside Elementary are working on projects for the national Future Problem Solvers Competition. They are trying to solve a wide range of environmental problems, but their primary focus is the Salt Lake Valley’s poor air quality. They have two targets for their efforts: their parents and the Utah State Legislature. For the parents, they stand at dropoff and pickup handing out window decals that say, “turn your key, be idle free.” For the legislature, they have banners and songs to unveil on the steps of the Utah State Capitol. 

Rosanise Odell (Honors ’18) remembers thinking, “What am I doing?” as she prepared to walk into a state representative’s office and talk about clean air. As she participated in the youth-fueled campaign that helped kick off a wave of clean-air efforts in the valley, she had no idea that a decade later she would graduate with a degree in environmental science and set out for Puerto Rico to work with Tropical Responses to Altered Climate Experience with the International Institute of Tropical Forestry and US Forest Service for her first environmental field-research position. 


It is Rosanise’s first week of college and, as the director of the Environmental Center, I am interviewing her for a student-employment position. She doesn’t exactly know what she wants to study, and she is nervously answering stock interview questions to collect recycling around campus. Rosanise doesn’t seem very excited about the position—or working in the Environmental Center—and I offer the job to someone else. After two weeks of physical labor in the late summer heat, that student bails. I’m stuck, so I offer Rosanise the position. I expect her to flake; I expect her to fail. In more than a dozen years working with students at Westminster, I have never been more wrong.

Rosanise proves to be one of the most capable and dedicated students ever. She never complains about the messy, tedious labor of collecting recyclables, and based on what she sees during collection, she recommends small, incredibly effective changes to make the campus system work better. She builds strong relationships with plant operations and Mountain West Custodial and redesigns the outdated signage to include the actual items that people most often get wrong. At the end of the year, she succeeds where so many students before her have failed: she creates an effective program to capture reusable goods during residence-hall moveout. 


At this point, Rosanise knows more about Westminster’s waste than any other person—thanks to a comprehensive audit of Westminster’s trash and recycling, hours of crunching data from campus garbage bills, and careful listening to the folks on the ground collecting the stuff. I create a position specifically for Rosanise as the college’s first waste-minimization coordinator. 

We head out to the facility where campus recycling goes to be sorted and sold on the international market. The facility is overflowing with mountains of material. We stand and watch as workers pull things like extension cords and tricycles off the first conveyor belt. The visit breaks me: the sheer volume of it, the unending flow of stuff. I feel myself, a professional environmentalist for over 15 years, give up. Rosanise has the opposite response. She recruits a friend and proceeds to live completely wastefree for two months. Out of her effort, one of the most successful Westminster student-led environmental efforts, #WasteFreeWestminster, is born. Rosanise begins work toward a comprehensive plan to move Westminster toward a zero-waste future. 


Rosanise is back on the steps of the Utah State Capitol, this time to accept Westminster’s award for our clean-air efforts. In place of a plaque, we are handed a big sign that says, “turn your key, be idle free.” Back on campus, Rosanise steps up to receive another award: the Outstanding Graduate in Environmental Studies. Rosanise’s trajectory represents Westminster at our best. We gave her the support and power to address real issues and make meaningful change, as well as the space to explore her own interests. 

Just as that sixth-grade slogan lives on around the valley, Rosanise’s waste-reduction impacts are now embedded across campus. A student she mentored is running the collection of items at moveout, now in partnership with the Residence Hall Association and Big Brothers Big Sisters. #WasteFreeWestminster has developed a near-cult following and is being handed off to yet another student mentored by Rosanise. The recycling program is working better than it has in years. Just like the air-quality awareness that she helped launch in 2008, her efforts have planted seeds that will lead to a more sustainable Westminster for years to come. 

Morningside Elementary 2008 Protest Song Lyrics:

“SWEET Team, SWEET Team, Stop Wasting Energy Everywhere Today Change the scene, let's be green, we gotta get there soon!”



About the Westminster Review

The Westminster Review is Westminster University’s bi-annual alumni magazine that is distributed to alumni and community members. Each issue aims to keep alumni updated on campus current events and highlights the accomplishments of current students, professors, and Westminster alum.