Engaging Students in the School’s Sustainability Strategy – An Example from IESEG School of Management

This month PRiMEtime is focused on student engagement, featuring innovative examples schools globally. This week the focus is on engaging students in the school’s sustainability strategy. This is what the Responsible Leaders Programme does at IESEG School of Management in France. I spoke with Maria Castillo, CSR Manager at IESEG, about this programme and the impact the students have had through it.

What is the Responsible Leaders Programme

The Responsible Leaders Programme is a voluntary initiative that aims to involve and engage  our students in the design and implementation of our School’s CSR and Sustainability Strategy. The objective is to empower students to be change makers by putting them at the core of our strategy and providing them the opportunity to be actors of change.

How/Why did it come about?

During my first year as the CSR and Sustainability Manager, I realized there was an enormous interest from students to engage with the school in these topics. However, students didn’t know how they could get involved or how to approach the school’s administration, while the school’s administration struggled to reach out to students and get them actively involved in different initiatives. My objective was to build a ‘bridge’ that would allow the two to connect and that would be beneficial for everyone.

The Responsible Leaders initiative thus was created to provide an opportunity for students to work directly with the ‘administration’ or management team, in this case the CSR Department and let them take initiative, propose projects, manage existing projects, and communicate with their peers. The idea is also that this project can help them develop their managerial skills and give them an experience in managing a project. Having students work directly with us is really exciting and refreshing. It is also beneficial as we now understand better what are students expect and can reach out to them more easily.

How does the programme work?

A call for applications is published in September once our students are all back on campus. Students submit a CV and Cover letter and are called for an interview with the CSR Department. Students are recruited based on their motivation. No previous experience is required, but we look for students who will commit to the initiative and get stuff done. Because the programme is on a voluntary basis, students can decide how many hours they can spend on their projects. The programme is quite flexible in this sense. What is important is that we achieve the goals that are commonly decided at the beginning of the year.

The CSR Department proposes some projects. These are presented in a group meeting late September (presentations of objectives, goals, deadlines, deliverables) and these projects are usually the priority projects for the School in a given academic year. Students can also propose different projects and these are discussed as a group. Students then choose one or two projects in which they want to be involved. Once students have chosen their projects they start working with their groups (so all who chose the same project) under the guidance of the CSR department. Meetings are held with each group once a month (more or less depending on the need and progress of students). Finally, students can present what they have done in front of the CSR and Sustainability Steering Committee and receive a certificate of participation.

How long do students stay involved?

The programme has been designed to allow students to follow a growth path. When they first join they are ‘associates’. If they choose to stay for one more year, they become ‘senior associates’ and finally, they can become ‘Managers’. The objective is to have some students stay along and become managers so that they can then manage new incoming students and projects. The programme has been running for only 2 years so far. Next year we will hopefully have our first student in a Managerial position.

What kinds of projects are the students involved in?

We try to create a collaborative environment that promotes a co-construction process and where everyone can have an impact. Some projects are really focused on the core of our strategy (measuring carbon emissions, designing KPI’s with targets for the next 5 years, etc.) Other focus on creating more awareness such as our annual CSR Day. This year, a group of students worked in a key project for our school which is the design of a 5 year sustainability strategy. This project is ongoing and will continue throughout next year. Students created, implemented and analyzed a questionnaire in order to gather more information on perceptions and interests. They helped to create a materiality survey that will be sent to our stakeholders (internal and external) early next week, and they have worked on identifying linkages between the SDGs and potential indicators that we could put in place. This is a really strategic process and having students be a part of this has provided with a point of view and a line of questioning that has helped strengthen what we want to do.

Another project that students worked on this year is our Plastic Free Initiative. The reflexion on this topic started in the spring of 2019. The school decided to drastically reduce the amount of single use plastic in our campus. All students and staff received a water bottle and signed a “Chart’ engaging to reduce plastic at IESEG. Most plastic cups had been removed from our coffee machines and our cafeterias are removing plastic cutlery and cups. Other projects include the organization of the CSR Day which takes place in March in both our Lille and Paris campus. This event is intended to raise awareness via fun educational activities and a conference. Students helped design this year’s event, and took part by hosting a stand.

Last year the students worked on a ‘Nudge’ project regarding water and electricity use on campus. They studied what nudges are, looked for inspiration, and came up with some phrases and numbers that were then put in stickers around campus.). (The Nudges project was one of the projects that was proposed by students, and not in our initial list).Students also worked on a ‘Green Guide’ which is a very simple booklet that is available to all students and that provides some very basic information on how they can be ‘greener’ in their daily lives.

What impact has this had on IESEG?

I think it has had a very positive impact as the CSR initiatives are now really adapted to our students interests and we have been able to reach out to students in a more effective way. It’s a win-win for everyone…I think it has helped strengthen the position of CSR in our School.

Any challenges (and how did you overcome these)?

The main challenges are related to time and organisation! Because this is a voluntary initiative and students have different availabilities, it is sometimes hard to get everything done as planned. What I have learned is that this programme needs to be a bit ‘flexible’ in order to succeed. This means that goals need to be realistic and that there has to be room for adaptation in case something gets in the way. What’s important is that we move projects forward and that we do the best we can with the time that we have. Making sure students don’t get frustrated when things don’t move the way they want is also important. Working in teams is sometimes difficult and there are always some students who engage more than others. I think it is important to establish a clear leadership in each of the projects to facilitate how students manage themselves.

Any advice for other schools thinking of doing something similar?

  • Set realistic objectives and goals. The first year our goals were too ambitious and there was a bit of frustration from both students and our team.
  • Have a dedicated staff following the students and projects as this takes a lot of time
  • Assign a team leader from the start (so a leader for each team) to improve communication and teamwork.

What’s next (both/either what is planned and what you’d love to do if you could)?

Next year we will continue working on more strategic projects and hopefully involve more students. A plan is also to have a project in which we involve a company so that students have the opportunity to work on a project where there are more than 2 parties and that has an impact for them, for the school, and for the company.  Finally, I would love to embed this into a ‘Certificate’ that combines a number of CSR courses, with this practical experience, and a CSR internship in a company.


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