What motivates students to be sustainability change agents in the face of adversity?

Aaron Redman, Debra Rowe, Katja Brundiers, Andrea Brock

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
110 Downloads (Pure)


The world faces significant challenges that require transformative changes facilitated by Sustainability Change Agents (SCAs). Universities around the world have explicitly taken up the responsibility of developing in students the skills and knowledge (i.e., competencies) necessary to be successful SCAs. While there is clear convergence around planning competencies, intrapersonal and implementation competencies have recently emerged in the literature. These competencies will have to remain effective even in the face of adversity, yet too little is known about sources of motivation for SCAs and how motivation can be maintained despite these inevitable setbacks. Since the needed transformations will be collective processes, motivation to be a SCA needs to be understood in the social and realistic context in which they would be applied. This study sought to gain specific insights into: 1.) What motivates students to be SCAs? 2.) How do these SCAs maintain their motivation in the face of setbacks? 3.) What can higher education institutions (e.g., universities, colleges) do to better support the motivation of SCAs? In order to gain insights into these questions, 83 aspiring SCAs were surveyed and their responses analyzed using qualitative content analysis. For this group of SCAs, the key source of motivation evolved from a focus on nature, learning, and individual behavior to a more social view with a concern for structural change. Moreover, social networks and intrapersonal skills helped to restore students' motivation following setbacks. Despite being university students, the SCAs surveyed had already experienced significant setbacks and, largely without institutional support, learned strategies to overcome them and maintain their motivation. Motivation and the skills, knowledge, and experience of how to maintain the drive for positive change in the face of setbacks is crucial in order for SCAs to be capable of supporting the critically needed transformations, and universities must play their part in fostering the SCAs' capability.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)313-322
Number of pages10
JournalSustainability and Climate Change
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 12 Oct 2021


  • Key competencies in sustainability
  • Motivation
  • Sustainability change agents
  • Sustainability education
  • Sustainability transformations


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