Nancy O’Neill Emphasizes Importance of Sustainability

Kate Branum

It is easy to forget that the natural resources that are so readily available now may not always remain so abundant. While many people do their best to promote environmental sustainability, Nancy O’Neill has made it a lifestyle. 

Three years ago, O’Neill began teaching Honors 280, Social Product Innovation, a three-course, multidisciplinary sequence offered at Grand Valley State University. Throughout the course, students are offered lessons in environmental sustainability as well as a chance to fulfill their writing requirements. 

O’Neill’s passion for sustainability began at a very young age. She said her concern for the environment was partially inspired by her father, who had taught her never to drop trash on the ground because the negative impact that litter left on the earth. 

As an undergraduate, O’Neill studied literature, art and Latin American history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It was at UC Santa Barbara that O’Neill first heard the term “ecology” and became very interested in the new ecology major. Despite the fact that O’Neill knew she would not be able to meet the science requirements necessary to major in ecology, her fascination with the environment flourished, and she immersed herself in sustainability-related issues. 

“The first Earth Day event that I attended in Santa Barbara caused me to think about how much avoidable waste we leave behind, because many participants celebrated the earth, but left their trash on the ground,” said O’Neill. 

O’Neill went on to attend graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles where she continued to pursue Latin American studies with an emphasis in development economics. 

Over the years, O’Neill has completed environmental development work in Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua and Haiti, where the introduction of consumerism and lack of infrastructure has resulted in polluted rivers and streets littered with plastic bottles and bags. 

The importance of the environment became even more apparent to O’Neill after her daughter was diagnosed with cancer. 

“I became much more aware of environmental dangers and wondered if her cancer might have been caused by something in our environment,” said O’Neill. “After that, I became much more careful about what we ate, how we cleaned our home and what we used to grow our plants.” 

Recently, O’Neill and her husband, Sean O’Neill, a professor in the History Department at GVSU, took a trip to Germany after her husband received an invitation to teach American history at a university in Schwaebisch Gmuend for three months. 

“While I am here, I am trying to learn as much as possible at Germany’s environmental sustainability practices, particularly recycling and public transportation,” said O’Neill. 

“I have taken pictures in train stations of different single-unit sorting methods for trash, paper, packaging and compost. They are not perfect solutions, but they are good attempts at solving a serious problem, and I hope to use the pictures in (my class), where I can ask students if they can come up with a more innovative solution or sorters that would work in a different situations.” 

O’Neill says she is highly impressed with the work done by the entire staff of the Office for Sustainable Practices and the Sustainable Agriculture Project at GVSU. Whenever possible, she involves both herself and her students in the events hosted by the Office for Sustainable Practices. 

“I have spoken to her class and she has brought them to the Sustainable Agriculture Project,” said Yumiko Jakobcic, Campus Sustainability Coordinator at GVSU. “She has also spoken at one of our events, the Sustainability Spotlight. We also seem to run into each other at a lot of zero-waste and sustainability-related events in the community.” 

O’Neill believes that GVSU is making excellent progress in environmental sustainability and waste diversion and would like to continue encouraging GVSU to participate in environment-related projects. One of O’Neill’s goals is to pursue a collaboration between the city of Grand Haven and GVSU students to improve the recycling system for residents and in public spaces during the various festival and events held in Grand Haven. 

“I am most proud of providing guidance to young people, including my own three children and students that I have taught over the years, and helping them to achieve worthwhile goals,” said O’Neill. 

“When I look at the SPI students, for example, at the end of the year, I think that I have spent my time well with them; that they will apply what they learned to do good work and help create a better world.”