By Jonah Grinkewitz

Old Dominion University’s School of Nursing headquarters is getting a makeover that will not only improve its aesthetics, but also reduce its environmental impact. 

Dozens of students, faculty and staff recently planted trees at the Virginia Beach Higher Education Center to beautify the campus and reduce and treat stormwater runoff. ODU received a $20,000 Trees for Clean Water grant from the Virginia Department of Forestry to reforest the site, and volunteers provided their time as matching funds. 

“We’re doing something for our community and something for the campus that’s really beneficial and will have long-term impacts,” said Ashley Cooley, a senior nursing student at ODU. 

The effort ties into ODU’s fall semester theme of sustainability. During the semester, nursing and health science students learned about ways they can reduce the health care industry’s climate impact. In 2013, the industry was responsible for around 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions according to a study by the Public Library of Science

“It’s a whole lot of responsibility,” said Imari Johnson, a freshman pre-nursing major at ODU. “As health care professionals, we can have more sustainable practices in place.”

Those include things like using natural light instead of artificial light when possible, adjusting thermostats seasonally to save energy, turning off monitors, printers and copiers when they’re not in use and favoring reusable items. 

Janice Hawkins, a nursing clinical associate professor at ODU, said senior nursing students completed EcoAmerica’s training to become Climate for Health Ambassadors. ODU’s School of Nursing also became 1 of 60 programs in the country to sign onto the Nurses Climate Challenge School of Nursing Commitment, pledging to prepare nurses to care for patients in a world with a changing climate. 

The tree planting initiative is one step towards that goal.

“It’s important, because with increased air pollution, we see more asthma and pneumonia,” said Cooley. “We’re planting trees because they provide more oxygen, better breathing and cleaner air.” 

The nursing students had some help, though. Renée Olander, associate vice president emerita at ODU and Co-Principal Investigator for the grant, said some students from main campus heard about the opportunity and came out to help. 

“They will take away amplified wellness from just this experience today,” she said. “They know that these trees are going to probably outlive them, outlive all of us, and contribute to our collective wellness.”

Volunteers planted around 50 bald cypress, black gum and longleaf pine tree seedlings. They will come back in March to eventually plant more than 100 trees in the surrounding area of campus. 

The education center was built on a wetland and stormwater sometimes collects on the sidewalk where students like to hang out. Rachel Griffith, ODU’s Landscape Coordinator and Co-PI for the grant, said she hopes the native trees will help address the issue. 

While some of the trees will take longer to grow, the bald cypress will start forming an inch or two of trunk within five years. 

Imari Johnson is looking forward to measuring her own growth alongside the trees she and her classmates planted. 

“Having this experience feels like I’m planting my roots here, knowing that when I get to the nursing program my junior year, there will be something set in store for me.”