Visiting scholar at ASU is selected for Open Society Institute’s 2021 Civil Society Scholar Award

December 1, 2021

The Melikian Center for Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies at Arizona State University welcomed Zeqir Veselaj as a visiting scholar this past November. Veselaj, a professor of environmental education and sustainable development in the Faculty of Education at the University of Pristina, Kosovo, was previously a Fulbright Scholar at ASU in 2018.

Alongside his academic work, he has led a distinguished career in public service. Veselaj served as director of the Institute for Nature and Environmental Protection of Kosovo, as well as the environmental adviser of the first minister of environment of Kosovo. A man stands outside holding his hand in a pitchfork gesture, mimicking an ASU marketing sign above him. Visiting scholar Zeqir Veselaj's current project is an online ecological footprint calculator, a tool for Kosovar educators to teach their students about resource conservation and the environment. Photo by Drita Halitaj Download Full Image

Veselaj’s most recent stint at ASU was made possible by a 2021 Civil Society Scholar Award from Open Society Foundations for his current project SUSKOS, an online ecological footprint calculator. This ecological calculator is a tool for Kosovar educators to teach their students about resource conservation and the environment.

While at ASU, Veselaj collaborated with Shahin H. Berisha, a retired faculty member of GateWay Community College and an adjunct professor and advisory board member of the Melikian Center.

ASU News spoke with Veselaj recently about environmental education, public service and what he learned from working with ASU.

Question: This isn’t your first time as a visiting scholar to ASU. What value does international collaboration add to your project?

Answer: It is my third time at ASU as a visiting researcher, but my second direct collaboration with Professor Berisha. In fact, his presentations on the ecological footprint in 2017 was our first contact. He was then working on a five-year Transformational Leadership Program sponsored by the USAID and the government of Kosovo. Through this program, he and Emeritus Professor Stephen Batalden supported the establishment of the Center for Energy and Sustainability (CEC) within the University of Pristina, the first interdisciplinary unit there. This project was a continuation of the long-term partnership between our two universities. From 2019–2020, I completed a project with the ASU Biodesign Institute to develop an online training for teachers on integrating sustainability issues in a classroom environment.

Q: Through your footprint calculator, you hope to seed awareness of the importance of the environment and natural resource conservation among young students in Kosovo. What would the ideal outcome of this environmental education project be? What actions do you hope to inspire?

A: Through a pilot survey research project I conducted with Berisha, I found that the concepts of ecological footprint, water footprint and carbon footprint are not well known in Kosovo. Often people see environmental problems as "something out there" that they have no responsibility for. With the ecological footprint calculator, our goal is to bring the idea of responsibility for environment and natural resources at the individual level to Kosovo. This is tied to our individual demand from nature (resources such as food, water, energy) and how much pressure we put on the environment through the waste and the CO2 we generate through our activities.

When my students calculate their individual footprint, they are often ashamed of their environmental impact. With this tool, we hope people will try to change their lifestyle in terms of wiser use of natural resources and waste generation. Kosovo’s ecological footprint is above the global average of 2.8 global hectares (gha) per person. With a pilot group of students, the average footprint was 3.93 gha. As part of the project, we developed an online calculator in the Albanian language. The project has been presented on the national broadcaster and radio as part of the public awareness campaign.

Q: You have held government positions in Kosovo, such as the environmental adviser of the first minister of environment; you are a professor at the University of Pristina; and now your SUSKOS project is aimed at teachers and students. Do you see a distinction in your responsibilities and how you approach your work in these different roles?

A: Whether as a government official, a member of civil society or a researcher, my life mission is to improve the environmental situation of my post-war country, the Republic of Kosovo. Kosovo, in addition to being the youngest country in Europe, also has the youngest population on the continent. In this sense our target is the younger generation, those who can change their attitudes towards the environment.

In principle, the general idea of SUSKOS was to raise the ecological awareness of Kosovars and lead them towards communal responsibility. The best option for this is to introduce sustainability footprints in the education system. This is the main goal of the SUSKOS project: working with future teachers and current teachers in all pre-university levels in Kosovo. If they understand their impact on the environment and how big it is, then the attitudes behind it are expected to change.

I am very honored to be a Kosovo researcher who is supported in this project by the Civil Society Research Award. It allowed me to continue my cooperation with ASU, as a leading university in the field of innovation. Having Professor Berisha as a project partner made the implementation of the project activities go very well. The workshops we held with students, teachers and civil society representatives generated great interest in Kosovar media.

Written by Kristen Ho

Making an impact in the world through sustainability

December 1, 2021

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2021 graduates.

Growing up in a military family, Caitlyn Finnegan lived in several different places throughout her childhood. She experienced different environments with different sustainability challenges and saw the need to address these crucial issues.  Caitlyn Finnegan Caitlyn Finnegan Download Full Image

"It's important to preserve the world we're living in," Finnegan said. "I saw how different cities, states and countries can serve their environments and make them better for future generations. 

Finnegan wanted to learn more about sustainability and what she could do to make an impact in the world, so she came to ASU to earn a Bachelor of Science in sustainability from the School of Sustainability in the College of Global Futures, and a minor in urban planning. 

"Ultimately, I chose ASU because the university hosts the nation's first School of Sustainability and is a top-ranked research institution. The School of Sustainability exposes students to a transdisciplinary mentality, essential to solving global issues, which I hoped to develop."

During her time at ASU, Finnegan has become a leader within the school and university. She is president of the Global Futures College Council, an ambassador for the School of Sustainability, and has been part of the School of Sustainability Undergraduate Academy, Sustianabilibuddies Mentorship Program, Honor Society for Sustainability Alpha Chapter, Sun Devil Audubon and Arizona Outdoors Club. She knows the importance of getting involved in a community and how doing so has the power to make a difference.

"I've tried to help close the gap between college leadership and students. Like any institution, the higher-ups are often disconnected from students, causing the students' perspective to be neglected," she said. "The Global Futures College Council recently hosted a lunch with the deans event, where the College of Global Futures' deans, directors and students could connect. The event provided all parties with the space to ask questions and listen to different perspectives. As students, our opinion and experiences should have merit in the colleges' decision-making process because, after all, it is our college."

Finnegan plans to continue making a difference after graduation. She wants to work in corporate sustainability and sustainability consulting to help companies and organizations address sustainability challenges. Her time with the School of Sustainability has taught her how to make an impact.   

"I am forever grateful to the School of Sustainability and everyone in it. I have grown so much as an individual since becoming a part of this community. I appreciate everything the school has given me, including the life lessons that I will continue to use in the future."

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: At ASU, I have learned several fundamental sustainability concepts, with systems thinking being the most prominent. The holistic problem-solving approach has really educated me on the interconnectedness and complexity of the sustainability challenges we are faced with, something I had never considered before.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Senior Lecturer Milan Shrestha transformed my perspective on sustainability, making it more real. In his classes, he challenges his students to think beyond the surface of sustainability challenges and emphasizes the importance of cultivating critical thinking skills. He taught me that you have to look at sustainability challenges from every angle, with a very critical eye, and that the solution often produces a new set of challenges. Most importantly, he gives off a radiating optimism for the future, and as someone who has a slightly pessimistic view, it has been encouraging. Additionally, Assistant Professor Kailin Kroetz, my undergraduate research adviser, indirectly taught me the value of enjoying the people you work with and the community you are a part of. While I thoroughly enjoyed conducting fisheries research, the highlight of my experience was our weekly meetings, starting with off-topic conversations and the opportunity to learn from a passionate professor.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: During the second year of my undergraduate career, a TA advised my class to learn beyond the classroom. He prompted us to explore our meaning of sustainability, our interests and ourselves. He encouraged us to take advantage of the opportunities that ASU and the School of Sustainability provide. As someone who is extremely involved, I can attest that getting involved significantly enhances your college experience.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: One of my favorite spots on campus to study is in Changemaker Central in the Memorial Union. I utilize the space whenever I need to escape into my work; it's super quiet, has a lot of outlets, and always has an open seat. Also, I particularly enjoy walking around campus at night to think about life. The empty campus possesses a certain surrealness that I find to be peaceful.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: With societal disparities becoming more prevalent, I would attempt to tackle one of the several social injustices currently taking place. It is challenging to narrow down the most prevalent social injustice issue, as there are countless; however, I would attempt to tackle both water and food insecurity. Globally, more than 785 million people do not have access to clean drinking water, and roughly 720 million people face hunger and undernourishment — two chilling statistics. Hopefully, the 40 million dollars could provide humanitarian aid to those whose basic human needs are not being met.

Ashley Richards

Communications Specialist , School for the Future of Innovation in Society