Providence College Commencement 2013
Academic Lives of Meaning and Purpose
Fitzgerald ’13 Battles Bottled Water
~ Liz F. Kay, Assistant Director of Editorial Services
Providence, R.I. - Sarah Fitzgerald ’13 (Lewisville, Texas) doesn’t take water for granted. As a Providence College freshman, she was inspired by a documentary she watched during World Water Week about Bolivian people rising up against a corporation that controlled the public’s access to drinking water.
While leading World Water Week events her senior year, Fitzgerald organized the “Think Outside the Bottle” campaign to have student clubs and organizations stop buying bottled water for events.
Her success is not a surprise to faculty such as Dr. Nicholas V. Longo ’96, associate professor of public and community service studies and director of the Global Studies Program. He described her work on water issues as “remarkable.”
Father Brian J. Shanley, O.P. '80 and Sarah Fitzgerald '13
“This issue literally wasn’t on the map just a few years ago and has now become a priority,” Longo said. “This is at least partly because Sarah is a savvy and relentless organizer who brings passion, wit, and a good sense of humor to her efforts.”
Fitzgerald attributes her desire to fight the corporate takeover of public water supplies to what she’s learned in her major, global studies. “It gave me the tools to bracket my cultural assumptions about the world and really tackle the social justice issues of our times with a more open-minded framework,” Fitzgerald said.
“It’s also helped fuel my activist fire,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot about the tragedies that our modern global paradigm has caused. My studies have ignited my passion to try to make a positive difference in the world.”
Her enthusiasm for her subject matched her intellect, said Peter R. Costello, a professor of philosophy. Fitzgerald, who is graduating summa cum laude with the highest academic record in global studies, was a student in his Globalization and Philosophy course.
“Her ability to read difficult primary texts — among the most difficult taught at any college —Husserl, Derrida, Nancy, etc., and to relate the descriptions and arguments within them to everyday situations, problems, and issues was among the best I've ever seen in my teaching of undergraduates,” he said.
Fitzgerald, who also earned minors in Spanish and Latin American Studies, studied abroad in Spain and Bolivia during her junior year. While in Bolivia, she studied the water revolt and made a documentary about pollution of Lake Titicaca.
An indigenous family hosted the student, and its father told her how transnational corporations would dump raw sewage into the lake’s tributaries, sullying the water, which his people consider sacred and healing. They also consider the glacier that feeds the lake to be sacred, but it was dying because of climate change, he told her.
“He asked me to take these stories back to my people because he was aware of the great influence America exerts across the world,” Fitzgerald said.
When she returned to campus, Fitzgerald began to organize with other students working on water issues. This year, World Water Week featured tap water taste testing and a reusable water bottle giveaway sponsored by the Office of Student Activities—Involvement—Leadership (S.A.I.L.)
One of the organizers, wearing a hazardous materials suit, stood in front of a bottled water vending machine handing out filled reusable bottles, she said.
The organizers found that people were often “combative” when they challenged prevailing views that bottled water is often cleaner or healthier.
“That just goes to show you how powerful marketing is, because municipal tap water doesn’t have a PR [public relations] budget,” Fitzgerald said. “Coca-Cola and Nestlé have literally billions at their disposal for trying to convince you that their product is safer and comes from mountains.”
In fact, most bottled water comes from municipal sources, so customers have in fact paid for the product twice — through water bills as well as again for the bottle.
Bottled water may seem far removed from other climate change issues. However, “the beautiful thing about water is that everything is so interconnected. It really is a global issue as well as a local issue,” she said.
Easier on the Earth and your wallet
Not only is tap water better for the environment and one’s personal health, it’s also cheaper. But that’s not the only reason to carry a reusable bottle. “We’re trying to challenge the corporate control of water, which is a very scary trend happening on global markets,” she said. “We’re trying to do our part at PC to effect change on a worldwide level.”
The club ban on bottled water purchases, which was passed by Student Congress in the spring, takes effect in the fall. Dining Services and the S.A.I.L. office purchased tap water coolers to make it available at events, including large ones such as the Spring Concert.
Student organizers might be intimidated if they had grown accustomed to planning events around disposable bottles, Fitzgerald said. However, peer institutions such as Brown University and Stone Hill Colleges are already bottled-water free. And, as someone pointed out during hearings on the legislation, “bottled water really wasn’t a thing until the ’80s, and we got along fine,” she said.
The ban will do more than just reduce the College’s carbon footprint and reduce waste at events.
Distinguished speakers will no longer be sipping from bottles when they stand behind lecterns across campus, she said.
“Taking a sip of a glass of tap water sets a good example for others,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve just been so used to thinking of bottled water as something normal and good.”
After graduation, Fitzgerald plans to teach English in Madrid while working to build community at the grassroots level.
Her experience at Providence College, which she described as “incredibly enriching,” helped her forge her identity — ironically, perhaps — as an activist, as a feminist, and as a global citizen, she said. Students may have to work to find opportunities that suit them, however.
Fitzgerald said she was able to forge close bonds with her friends, professors, and the Providence community at large.
"My experience at Providence College has given me a sense of purpose, helped shape my identity, and also blessed me with relationships that will endure for the rest of my life," she said.