Innovative university sustainability initiative wins global award

Peru’s Universidad San Ignacio de Loyola (USIL) has won a United Nations-supported international award for a groundbreaking initiative that imparts sustainability skills to students, which they then practise in the local community. Nearly 150,000 volunteer hours have been undertaken for more than 40 organisations.

The initiative has achieved other extraordinary results. More than 3,200 students have been enrolled in sustainability specialisations courses in the past three years. There are 30 courses for students that are accredited for quality in social responsibility and 15 student clubs have been created that are focused on sustainability.

USIL has notched up an impressive 148,076 volunteer hours in the past three years for more than 40 organisations. There are now 50 USIL graduates working in organisations generating social and environmental entrepreneurship.

The goal, according to a video developed by the university, is “to train people with values that they can leave their mark on the world”.

The video explained further: “We set out to train professionals where sustainability is adapted to each of their majors in a cross-cutting manner, adapting their respective curricula according to the sustainability trends in the world.”

On the experiential side, it continues, “students apply everything they have learned in the classroom through the promotion of specialised volunteering and youth leadership both inside and outside the university in social, economic and environmental organisations”.

The university corporation’s CEO Juan Manuel Ostoja told University World News: “Through the project, students have been able to link their professional skills to a sustainable development approach, recognising how they can contribute and make better decisions.

“They have also been able to relate how their volunteering actions add to the Sustainable Development Goals,” such as better understanding the value of proper waste management. “In relation to their soft skills, they perceive a contribution to the development of empathy, teamwork, sense of belonging and leadership,” he said.

The award

Based in Lima, the Peruvian capital, USIL was a winner of the Next Generation Learning and Skills section of the International Green Gown Awards 2023, which are endorsed by the UN Environment Programme and supported by the Association of Commonwealth Universities, L’Agence universitaire de la Francophonie, the International Association of Universities and the UN Higher Education Sustainability Initiative.

The plaudit for the “USIL sustainability skills for the professional world” project was announced at the UN High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in New York on 17 July.

The judges were impressed, with an awards note calling the project an “excellent whole organisation approach to embedding sustainability into their education and student experience”.

It added: “They've looked at what they do as their core business offer and thought about how to embed sustainability into their educational offer – extracurricular, civic role with local businesses and social enterprises. This is the role of institutions and what all universities should be doing!”

Charlotte Bonner, CEO, of the UK-based EUAC Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education and the Green Gown Awards Secretariat, said of all the 2023 winners, including USIL: “Their stories demonstrate considerable impact, showing how institutions are taking sustainability action, equipping learners for their futures and shaping society for the better.

“We can all take inspiration from their work to progress and accelerate sustainability action.”


USIL is a private university, headed by the Lima-based USIL Educational Corporation, which has offices in Lima and the Peruvian cities of Arequipa and Cusco, as well as in Asunción in Paraguay, Miami in the United States and Beijing in China.

It offers undergraduate and postgraduate courses, focusing on entrepreneurial work, research, global issues, technological and values-based education.

The sustainability project is focused on its largest institution in Lima, but it also operates in its Peru Instituto de Emprendedores, a technical institute; Escuela de Postgrado, a graduate school in Paraguay; its Universidad San Ignacio de Loyola in Miami; and USIL’s nursery, elementary, middle and high school services.

The university corporation teaches more than 25,000 students and has 3,000 employees, with its Peru services spending US$100 million a year.

Juan Manuel Ostoja has a strong private sector background, having worked for ExxonMobil, the Peru Commission for the Promotion of Exports and the SEAF Peru private equity fund. He has consulted for the Inter-American Development Bank and management consultants ZS Associates in Chicago, United States.

He explained how in 2021, the university integrated a general and cross-cutting competence of ‘human and sustainable development’ in the academic curriculum of all its major course subjects. It also institutionalised ‘Guidelines on Experiences in Sustainability and Social Responsibility’, which promoted student volunteering.

This work is coordinated and run by the USIL Sustainability Direction, which is part of the university’s academic vice-rectorate. The directorate reports to other USIL bodies, including the CEO, regarding corporate social and environmental governance, sustainability and ESG – environment, social and governance – reporting, and sustainability policy implementation.

Impact on academic work

As for the initiative’s impact on academic work, it lays down three required core courses on human and sustainable development competency within the university’s 39 undergraduate degree programmes.

Ostoja said: “It is expected that students will have become aware of their personal leadership role in relation to the problems of global warming, corruption, poverty and inequality.”

They are also supposed to appreciate “their relationship to the current economic and development model followed in Peru and throughout the world, within the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Under the programme, students can also enrol in four specialised optional courses, including knowledge on climate change adaptation and resilience plus ESG criteria. He added that more than 114 other USIL courses have now included sustainability and social responsibility in their syllabus and class activities.

These skills are put into practice by students via extracurricular activities undertaken by student clubs, which focus on sustainable development and volunteering. Ostoja said that among the 25 clubs, the work of four stood out:

• The USIL International Rotaract Club, part of Rotary International, which “focuses on carrying out social projects with communities in a vulnerable situation”.

• The HTG Ambassadors Club, which provides nutrition and food at shelters for vulnerable people.

• The USIL Entrepreneurs Club, which fosters student-run small businesses operated with sustainability in mind.

• The Sustainable Club, which is entirely focused on sustainability, co-managed with the university’s Direction of Sustainability.

USIL students also participate in a competition called Race for the SDG, where they apply sustainability knowledge to activities, projects or products related to each SDG that encourage teamwork. Ostoja also highlighted a nutrition programme in which students and faculty hold a training programme on nutrition and food safety for community kitchens, benefiting nearly 1,000 people.

Music students developed an artistic programme for 14 adolescent girls with a history of substance abuse currently living at the Instituto Mundo Libre shelter in Lima, “giving them tools to express their emotions”. And 10 environmental engineering students helped Peru’s National Protected Areas Service to monitor wildlife harmed by the January 2022 spill of 12,000 barrels of crude oil from a Repsol tanker into the Pacific Ocean off Lima.

Socially responsible graduates

After graduating, USIL alumni with a resulting greater social and environmental interest have taken on sustainability or social responsibility work in large companies, said the CEO. They have also become founders and directors of social organisations with social impact.

Examples of employers with USIL graduates include Peru’s Proa, which runs a virtual platform integrating supply and demand for volunteering, bringing together voluntary organisations and volunteers.

Another is Juguete Pendiente, which designs, manages and executes high impact social programmes and projects. And a new organisation, Puñuy Wawa, is delivering vocational and integral education for children and teenagers throughout Peru.

“All these organisations have become strong allies of USIL and enable its sustainability community and professional ecosystem to continue expanding,” said Ostoja.

Commenting on the programme Magda Nuñez, a final year communications student, said: “I knew I wanted to participate in as many volunteer activities as possible and that is how I came to the [USIL] Sustainability Club, which opened the doors to a new university experience...

“I have witnessed how USIL is present in its community and is attentive to its needs.” Nuñez said this work had underlined how, “if you don't put your knowledge and learning to the benefit of others, you are not giving a real purpose to your career.”