Climate education: a personal journey of a study abroad student

Study abroad student sitting in front of Irish cliffs

Sarah Lancaster is a Champlain College student who undertook a study abroad semester abroad in Dublin, Ireland in Spring 2022. While in Dublin, she undertook an internship with Big Pond Education, which is dedicated to climate protection through emission reduction, offsetting measures and carbon literacy. This is Sarah’s story of her semester working with Big Pond.

I wanted my journey as a study abroad student to be a reflection of me: keen to make a difference locally and have a positive impact on the environment. I already knew that minimizing my carbon emissions would need to start with understanding my footprint, which ultimately turned into a learning opportunity and a chance to integrate more meaningfully with the local community. But my internship with Big Pond opened my eyes to the world of offsetting, onsetting, and insetting.  It’s changed how I think about myself, the environment and showed me how education abroad can be a friend to the planet and society, not a threat.  

About me

My name is Sarah Lancaster. I am currently a senior at Champlain College and an intern at Big Pond Education. I am studying management and innovation with minors in entrepreneurship and international business. Normally I am in Vermont, where I make natural skincare alongside my mother. This semester, I decided to mix things up and go outside of my comfort zone. So, for the last four months, I have been studying in Dublin, Ireland.

Every year, I become more mindful of the impact our actions have on the environment. Every purchase, drive, and piece of trash we throw away has consequences. We don’t have a lot of time to safeguard the future of our planet, so today’s decisions matter. I know that I’m not alone in this mindset. My generation is worried about our future.

"My internship with Big Pond further opened my eyes to the world of carbon offsetting, onsetting, and insetting.  It has changed how I think about myself, the environment and showed me how education abroad can be a friend to the planet and society, not a threat".  

Meeting Big Pond 

When I decided that I wanted to experience an internship while studying abroad, it was important for me that I joined a company whose values aligned with my own. In fact, the organization's values were more important to me than the work I would commit to. I wanted to work for a company with a real passion to make an impact on how it went about its business.

I was thrilled when I learned about Big Pond Education. They were approaching study abroad from an angle that has always been dear to me and my peers.  That is, from a perspective of ‘how can we make everything we do as sustainable as possible? Big Pond was looking to change the way study abroad programs were designed and I wanted to be a part of that. It also allowed me the unique perspective of being a student on one study abroad program while being an intern in another.

My internship mission: building out the details of what sustainability in a study abroad provider looks like

As part of Big Pond’s commitment to reaching net zero and eventually carbon negativity, they had already committed to offsetting all student transatlantic return flights, but they were keen to go further and leave no stone unturned. This was going to involve a detailed carbon accounting process that would measure the whole student experience.  Being part of that was going to be my internship project - Measuring, analyzing, and finding local partners to help Big Pond go ‘beyond neutral’  After joining Big Pond, I learned that there are even more hurdles to net neutrality for study abroad programs than I could have imagined. Just calculating the carbon footprint of a study abroad program is no simple task.

It's not just about flights

To calculate Big Pond’s carbon footprint, we looked at every aspect of the program. That meant looking at student housing, heating and electricity, other utilities, student commuting, program activities and field trips, student personal activities, food consumption, student independent travel, and yes, flights. 

Unsurprisingly, the heavy hitter in a student’s carbon footprint is the transatlantic flights they take to and from their host country. In many cases, the carbon emissions from transatlantic flights are the largest portion of a student’s carbon footprint. I personally flew over 11,000 km and, according to Atmosfair (the carbon calculator we utilised for this process), the total CO2equivalent of my flight was almost 2,400 kg. That is the equivalent of charging my phone 291,942 times or recycling 104 trash bags instead of sending them to the landfill. If one were to calculate the total carbon emissions of all international students and their carbon footprint, it would become obvious what a huge impact they have on the climate.  With 350,000 American students alone traveling abroad each year, that’s a lot of trash bags.

To combat the impact studying abroad has on the environment, Big Pond asked me to research methods to be sustainable, locally in Ireland that study abroad students could be part of. Big Pond is committed to a multifaceted approach in order to reach their net zero goals. Offsetting is a commonly-known concept: ameliorate carbon emissions by investing in an environmental project outside of the organization that decarbonizes the atmosphere. Insetting involves making changes to those operations within your own value chain to reduce emissions such as changing your energy provider to one that uses only renewable sources of energy. 

Onsetting is the recognition that some of our carbon-emitting activities may be worthwhile in terms of learning, business, or development, and we shouldn’t get stuck in the idea that we must offset everything that we do. Instead we can ‘pay forward’ the environmental cost and make other environmental savings and take sustainability actions that may not translate purely into carbon accounting.  Examples of this would be river cleanups, promotion of sustainable lifestyles, the development of a community garden, or biodiversity initiatives, all of which promote positive change that may not have carbon equivalencies.

In an ideal world, Big Pond would be able to undertake insetting measures to account for their footprint, but given the number of transatlantic flights involved in getting the students to and from Dublin there are not enough insetting possibilities available to allow them meet their net zero goal. As a result, Big Pond are committed to insetting and offsetting measures to meet their carbon goals and to several onsetting measures to pay forward the environmental cost of getting students to and from their destination.

Planting for the planet: Study Abroad and the importance of local offsetting

Big Pond wants to do more than pay off their carbon footprint. They want to do it by encouraging students to be environmentally conscious human beings. Big Pond was keen to have students get their hands dirty with their own carbon offsetting, through a local project students were exposed to. “Making students’ carbon footprint understandable and real”.

With this direction of travel in mind, we realized that tree planting would meet all of them, and also have a very beneficial impact on deforested Ireland, where just 7.4% of Ireland is covered in natural forest cover (as of the year 2000).

After undertaking an evaluation of several tree planting organizations in Ireland we settled on HomeTree, an charity genuinely concerned about reforesting Ireland in native woodland.  I was delighted to be part of the inaugural education and tree planting day.  I’m thrilled that on returning home, I helped establish carbon offsetting through a local tree-planting organization in order to give something back to the community that was my home for a few months.

Beyond offsetting - study abroad, Big Pond, and insetting

Insetting is a little bit more complicated. While offsetting takes place outside of the organization, insetting is all about looking internally and determining what changes can be made to lower the organization’s own carbon footprint by minimizing all those carbon-centric activities within the own organization’s activities. Ethically, insetting is preferable to offsetting. Insetting lowers the greenhouse gasses being emitted into the atmosphere, instead of trying to recapture those gasses later on.

Without a doubt, insetting is the most appealing method to my generation. It shows an extra layer of commitment to reducing emissions that Gen Z appreciates. My generation knows that climate change is going to have a significant impact on our future. Therefore, putting some extra effort into reducing your carbon footprint shows Gen Z that you care about their future.

Study abroad programs should see insetting when it comes to residences

One aspect that study abroad providers have more control over is the residency’s carbon impact. Big Pond chooses to only work with residences that share the same values and are also working towards carbon neutrality. Residences can lower their carbon impact by choosing the right energy provider, preferably one that uses renewable energy. They can be super insulated.  All Big pond students live at Highfield House, Ireland’s only student residence which is a Nearly Zero Emissions Building.

Onsetting through built in training: putting 'education' in education abroad.

Participants in an education abroad program might well be students, but we are also active parts in a study abroad chain of activity.  If we are going to have an experience which includes climate-conscious inputs, it’s only right there’s an educational piece to complement that.  I’m delighted to say that I was involved with helping set up Big Pond’s Carbon Literacy Initiative for students.  All Big Pond students will now experience five short touch points which lead to an optional carbon literacy certificate. The course will be accredited by the Carbon Literacy Project, a UK-based charity dedicated to carbon literacy and climate education. One of the touch points is an educational day including the tree planting. I’m thrilled to think that students on Big Pond programs will have an opportunity to spend hours over their semester learning the steps to becoming carbon literate, all in a refreshing overseas context, at no extra cost to them or their colleges.    


Working with Big Pond has changed my perception of the world in ways I never expected. Every day I consider my impact on the world and how each action I take adds up. Sustainability has always mattered to me, but now I have the skills to analyze my own impact and the knowledge to discuss sustainability with others.  

I am thrilled that generations of study abroad students after me will have the opportunity to participate in their own offsetting while simultaneously becoming carbon literate. They don’t know it yet, but it will change their lives. Climate change is our future. It is essential that my generation have the knowledge and skills to understand what is going on, communicate their knowledge, and make real changes. Students who are carbon literate will also have more job opportunities as businesses shift their focus to more sustainable methods.

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