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A sustainability internship program: strategies for creating student stewards for sustainability

Hongor Miller (Office for Sustainability/Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA)
Byron Ronald Miller Jr (Sociology Department/College of Arts and Sciences, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA)
Jeffrey Spoelstra (Office of Sustainability/Director of the Office of Sustainability, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA)

International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education

ISSN: 1467-6370

Article publication date: 22 March 2021

Issue publication date: 16 August 2021




The purpose of this paper is to explore the strategies and an effective model for creating and implementing a sustainability internship program at a university campus.


This study assessed Western Michigan University’s sustainability program’s interns’ gain of environmental knowledge on sustainability topics via pre- and post-test assessments. A sample of 50 interns between fall 2016 and spring 2019 comprising six cohorts participated in this study. Data were analyzed using statistical package for social sciences to calculate descriptive statistics and sign tests.


The sign tests of the accumulative internship pre- and post-test assessment scores significantly increased for all 14 sustainability knowledge dimensions.

Research limitations/implications

The pre- and post-test assessments of the internship program are unable to track and predict the long-term behavior changes of the interns after the completion of the program. Therefore, a future longitudinal study is needed.

Practical implications

This sustainability internship program’s content and experiential learning model has been proven to be effective in increasing interns’ knowledge of sustainability issues and creating sustainability stewards. Institutions and universities should consider creating their own sustainability internship program based on Western Michigan University's program using pre- and post-test assessments as a method of evaluation.

Social implications

The internship programs’ main strength is that it offers students from all academic backgrounds an opportunity to dig deep into sustainability issues, build new social networks, gain knowledge, develop leadership skills, become sustainability stewards and immediately apply what they have learned on campus and in their local community. On-campus internships are unique learning opportunities worthy of study and refinement.


This research paper is unique because it analyzes the combined pre- and post-test scores of six cohorts of interns’ across multiple knowledge dimensions of sustainability. This study empirically shows that the combined interns’ sustainability knowledge across all dimensions significantly increased from the pre- to post-test over the semester-long program.



This paper forms part of a special section “Sustainability Literacy: Faculty, Staff, and Students as Agents of Change”, guest edited by Ira Feldman and Todd LeVasseur.

The authors would like to acknowledge former staff of the Office for Sustainability, including Dr Harold Glasser, Nicolette Ledbury, Laura Donders and Isaac Green for contributing to the creation and implementation of this internship program.


Miller, H., Miller Jr, B.R. and Spoelstra, J. (2021), "A sustainability internship program: strategies for creating student stewards for sustainability", International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 22 No. 5, pp. 1022-1037.



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