Sustainable Leadership Academy (SLA) program feature

SLA summer 2019 group picture: Julian as a participant

Julian Kroger is a member of the K-12 Education Office at Eden Hall, enjoy his reflection on his time as a participant, counselor, and program assistant. 

The summer before my junior year of high school, way back in 2019 (that was three years ago?!), my mom told me about an opportunity to spend a week learning about sustainability. Despite my reservations about writing an essay so I could get a scholarship to attend, I was intrigued by the prospects of free college credits and a week away from home (ish). So, I got over the pains of the essay and was soon on my way to Chatham University’s Eden Hall Campus to take part in the Sustainable Leadership Academy (or SLA).
Now the word ‘academy’ might make it seem like the program is a week of sitting inside stuffy classrooms listening to people four times my age ramble on for hours. Fortunately, this was not the case at all, and SLA was one of the best experiences of my life. Through a host of different trips, tours, panels, and other activities, I got to see first-hand what sustainability was and why it mattered. Even from the first evening of the program, I remember learning about various definitions of sustainability, from balancing the three E’s (environment, equity, and economy) to the Sustainable Development Goals. From that point on, we got to go on a green building kayak tour, meet and talk with professionals working in the frontlines of the field, see how renewable energy was being generated on campus, and get to know people our age who shared similar values to us. To this day, I still talk to some of the friends I made while at SLA.

Summer 2021 SLA: Julian as a counselor making baked goods in the bread oven at Eden Hall

Despite all of this, it’s clear to me that the most impactful part of the week was the time spent in intergroup dialogue. These conversations forced me outside of my comfort zone and into a place of learning as our group dealt with the dynamics of our diverse social identities. At times, this meant pre-planned activities designed to stir thought, and at other times it meant stopping what we were doing and addressing problematic actions or words that came to our attention. Understanding how social justice was directly related to the environment has been one of the biggest influences in my life, pushing me towards my pursuit of a sustainability degree here at Chatham.
Flashing forward to this past summer, I was given another opportunity to be involved with SLA, this time as a counselor. Having the experiences that came with two years, a pandemic, and a world much more conscious of social justice made this week different from the last, especially considering the fact that I was no longer a participant. Even with these changes, the experience was once again meaningful, although in a different way. Getting to reconnect with the other counselors (as well as meeting a few new people) while also transitioning from high school to college was an amazing opportunity to reflect on the relationships I made during my time as a participant in the program. Further, this reflection helped me learn a lesson on the importance of community when addressing sustainability. If I hadn’t had those open, sometimes raw experiences with my peers (and now friends) when I was a participant, I likely wouldn’t have truly grasped the importance of the issues we discussed and wouldn’t be where I am today. Being a part of that community inspired me to continue learning about the role I can play in making a more equitable and resilient future.
Now, as SLA Coordinator, I have an even better grasp of how important these experiences were for me. The behind-the-scenes work that goes into connecting students with effective methods of learning and the people who inspire change in the world is not insignificant, and helping Kelly in this process has given me a greater appreciation for the time I had as a participant. I mean, when else do you get to pick the vegetables that go with fish you just learned how to fillet during a sustainable food systems workshop? SLA is a really unique program, and I am honored to have been a part of it for so long now.
Looking ahead to this summer, we are making a few changes, like incorporating more time in the city again, introducing a session on sustainability in fashion, and making the panels more hands-on and interactive. Additionally, we have several early bird scholarships available for the program, with applications due by March 31st!
As we continue to prepare for this summer’s SLA, I hope to inspire students just as I was inspired when I participated in the program three years ago. We can’t wait to see you there!

Summer 2021: Julian as a counselor spending time with the goats in the Agroecology Garden at Eden Hall


Sustainability Leadership Academy 2017

This August, 15 high school leaders came together for the second year of our Sustainability Leadership Academy residential, week-long program. This year, we were excited to have participants who traveled from as far as China to learn about careers in sustainability (we miss you, Steve)!

After a first evening of icebreakers and teambuilding games, we jumped right in on the first full day, starting the morning with a leadership studio with Chatham’s Career Development Office. The rest of the day was filled with tons of time in the fields and woodlands of the Eden Hall Campus – starting with an applied woodland ecology session with Professor Linda Johnson and ending with an epic group game of capture the flag.

Applied Ecology with Dr. Linda Johnson of the Falk School of Sustainability

Day 2 was full of green building tours! We started at the new Frick Environmental Center, where Maureen Olinzock, Sustainability Coordinator, and Taiji Nelson, Naturalist Educator, both with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, showed us around the Living Building’s features. We spent the afternoon at Phipps’ Center for Sustainable Landscapes and even met up with their high school interns in the SEED Classroom. We were pumped to end our day with our first night out in Pittsburgh at Kennywood theme park!

Kennywood Night!

Day 3 was food day! After a morning spent harvesting mushrooms, greens, zucchini and more with Tony on the Eden Hall Farm, we took the whole afternoon to learn how to cook from Chef Chris, who manages all the great food that comes out of the campus dining hall. We fileted and prepared our own fish with vegetables. It was a good challenge out of comfort zones for some, but well worth the taste! The day wound down with a game night – including corn hole, Frisbee, and board games like Exploding Kittens and Taboo too.

Cooking class with Chef Chris from Parkhurst Catering at the dining hall.

Day 4 was focused on social justice and planning. In the morning, we toured downtown Pittsburgh’s walk/bike infrastructure and public transit projects with Sean Luther and Phoebe Downey from Envision Downtown. The afternoon was spent in Homewood, where we toured the Sankofa Village Community Garden with Ayanna Jones and the Oasis Farm & Fishery with Casey Clauser. For most of us, seeing sustainability in action to drive social change on the neighborhood scale was the highlight of our week. That night, after some free time to play soccer and use the rock climbing wall on the Shadyside Campus, we had our second night out in Pittsburgh – an escape room! It was great teambuilding, even though neither team managed to escape in time.

With the garden interns at the Sankofa Village Community Garden in Homewood.

Our last full day started with a green building tour around downtown Pittsburgh by kayak with Isaac Smith and Mary Schrag from the Green Building Alliance. Everyone had been looking forward to this all week and we were so glad the weather held out! In the afternoon, we had a follow-up leadership studio and then wrapped up the program with outdoor pool time, a campfire and some group closing and bonding time.

Green building kayak tour of Downtown Pittsburgh with GBA.

All week, each young leader worked on their own project idea to implement in their home communities, starting as soon as they left this program. Projects range from getting local businesses to eliminate use of plastic bags to inventing new technologies and improving the effectiveness of their high school’s environmental club. We look forward to catching up with the whole group over the next 6 months or so as we conference call to check-in on project successes and stories.

Thanks to all the young leaders and to the community partners involved for a great week! We couldn’t put it better than some of the leaders themselves:

  • “I learned a lot more about sustainability than I knew before and also realized the connection between sustainability and social justice. I realized a possible interest in urban planning as well.”
  • “I enjoyed learning more about sustainability in Pittsburgh because even though I’ve lived here my whole life I had no idea how many green buildings are here.”
  • “This week I learned that working with the environment is what I want to do with my life for sure.”
  • “Thanks for a great and empowering week!”

Sustainability Leadership Academy 2016

This summer saw the inaugural year of the Sustainability Leadership Academy (SLA) out of Chatham’s Eden Hall Campus. This residential camp program for high school students exposed rising change-agents to topics and skills needed to lead in a sustainable field of work or study. From August 4-7, fourteen participants from four different states met young professionals in the field and Chatham faculty through hands-on activities and tours, both around the city of Pittsburgh and at Eden Hall.

Friday’s city day was full of adventure, starting with a public transit-oriented tour of Downtown Pittsburgh with Sean Luther and Phoebe Downey of Envision Downtown. After a picnic lunch near Point State Park, the group experienced Pittsburgh by kayak, facilitated by Isaac Smith of Green Building Alliance.


The afternoon ended with a tour of Millvale, emphasizing needs and strategies for sustainable communities on the neighborhood and municipality scale with Zaheen Hussein, Millvale’s Sustainability Coordinator. Following dinner on Chatham’s main campus in Shadyside, the SLA enjoyed a night out on the town at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.


After a fun-filled and very active Friday, Saturday’s day on the farm at the Eden Hall Campus started with a session on soil’s role in sustainable agriculture with Assistant Professor of Agroecology, John Taylor. Associate Professor of Biology, Sherie Edenborn, brought microbiology to our taste buds with a chocolate and honey sampling and visit to the campus bee hives. After lunch and some breaks to catch updates in Olympics events on the large screen in the EBC, Assistant Farm Manager, Tony Miga, led participants in sampling water quality from a rainwater capture system he installed on campus. The last session of the day was on renewable energy with Chatham’s new Assistant Professor of Energy Systems, Iris Grossmann. The day ended with a movie night in the pool and group campfire. Everyone wasn’t ready to leave the next morning!


The program was bookended with Leadership Studios, facilitated by Chatham’s Assistant Director for Career Development’s Kate Sheridan. During these sessions, participants examined personal values and mission statements while exploring what it means to be an “everyday leader.”


We had a wonderful time meeting these young leaders and can’t wait for next year! Dates for next year’s SLA, which will be a week-long, will be announced soon. To learn more about the program and to register starting in January 2017, visit the SLA website.


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