In support of ongoing sustainability efforts across the University of Michigan, the Excellence in Sustainability Honors Cord Program this year is offering special graduation cords for those who have excelled in areas of sustainability.
Interest in the sustainable cords has almost tripled since they were piloted last year, with 281 students wearing them for winter and spring commencement ceremonies in the 2021-22 academic year.
The program is led by Joseph Trumpey, associate professor of art in the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, and associate professor of natural resources and of the Program in the Environment in the School for Environment and Sustainability, and Alex Bryan, sustainability programs manager in the Office of Student Life.
“Most of the fibers in the world have polyester or nylon in them, which are fossil fuel-derived materials,” said Trumpey, who also is director of the Sustainable Living Experience. “We really wanted to steer clear of anything that had any sort of deep fossil-fuel footprint or was manufactured overseas.”
Trumpey had a longstanding relationship with Zeilinger Wool Co. in Frankenmuth, Michigan, which milled and spun wool from local sheep into yarn utilized for the program. The yarn was dyed with goldenrod harvested from Matthaei Botanical Gardens and indigo grown at the Campus Farm as part of a dye garden project of the Botanical Gardens and the fiber studio at the Stamps School. Students create the cords by hand over the course of several sessions.
The creation process begins almost a full year ahead of graduation, starting with the harvesting of goldenrod in the fall. Looking ahead, Trumpey and Bryan have plans to take the process a step further, utilizing laser-cut drop spindles created at Stamps for their newly procured spinning wheels.
They will take raw wool, spin it in-house, and then proceed to hand-dye and braid the cords. There is even talk of bringing a few sheep to the Campus Farm to keep the process as local as possible. They also hope to hire four arts and cultural organizers within Student Life to further integrate the humanities into what is typically an environmental science-heavy space.
Bryan also is looking for ways to utilize buckthorn, an invasive species that grows prolifically, as an additional dye source. Buckthorn leaves and berries can be harvested to create a blue or green dye. Using this process to cut down on an invasive species while creating something meaningful adds another layer of importance to the program.
“This program is really about engaging in sustainability that shows up and takes place in lots of different ways,” Bryan said. “For some that’s a heavy focus on environmental sustainability, for others that might be more focused on social sustainability, making sure that our communities are whole in addition to the planet. We try to take that broad approach.”
To apply for the cord program, students fill out a questionnaire with background data and accrue points for completing activities in school or their spare time that are connected to sustainability. Point values vary across things like attending a sustainability conference or participating in volunteer work in the community, to having a yearlong internship or a major or minor in sustainability. Each student needs 10 points to qualify for a cord.
“I think our interest in trying to build the cord program is really about showing the breadth, depth and diversity of students that are interested in sustainability and doing sustainability work,” Bryan said.
As one might expect, a large percentage of honorees come from SEAS, but more than 100 students from LSA will receive their sustainability cord, along with others from the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, Stephen M. Ross School of Business, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, College of Engineering, and the schools of Art & Design, Public Health, Nursing, and Music, Theatre & Dance.
“Hands-on experiential learning is always great, but it’s an added bonus when we can have students actually making things with other students in mind as they create it,” Trumpey said.
“They’re sort of reflecting on their experiences and thinking about other students that are a lot like them entering the world and visualizing themselves in that kind of role in the future. It is a lot different than placing an order for some yellow nylon cords from overseas.”