Alumnus credits job success to UCM

Written by Muleskinner Staff

MEStory by KRISTIN GALLAGHER, Business Manager—
For some students, success means graduating from college. But for UCM alumnus Manny Arbaca, success began much sooner.
Now the recycling operations coordinator at the University of Kansas, Arbaca credits his success to his experience here at UCM.
In 2008, Arbaca transferred to UCM from Missouri State University in Springfield, Mo., to finish the last two years of his undergraduate degree in political science.
“At the time I was working with the Kauffman Scholars program and wanted to be closer to home and still work there,” he said about his decision to transfer.
The Kauffman Scholars program is based in Kansas City, Mo., which is where Manny grew up. The close proximity of UCM to his home and his job strongly influenced Arbaca’s decision to transfer.
And it’s fortunate for UCM that he did.
Arbaca immediately became active on campus by joining the Student Government Association. Arbaca was drawn to the impact that SGA has campuswide.
“I would say that SGA was my favorite organization I was involved with,” he said. “It is because of SGA that we have barbecue grills at Pertle Springs. SGA built us a rec center. It is because of SGA that we now have recycling bins.”
But SGA cannot take all the credit for that last one.
Although SGA provided experience for his political interests, Arbaca felt he had another calling.
“When I first started school, I wanted to be an architect,” he said. “Then I changed that to public service. Then I just generated an interest in recycling programs.”
And with that interest came much success.
During his senior year in spring 2008, Arbaca and a colleague, Nicholas McDaniels, decided they wanted to help create a “green” campus by implementing a recycling program at UCM.
Their idea was to place recycling bins across campus in coordination with off-campus trash companies to handle distribution and pickup of the bins and waste.
In addition, Arbaca and McDaniels provided informational pamphlets and fliers for students, faculty and staff to keep them informed about the recycling program.
Arbaca and his colleague first went to SGA to advocate for their program.
“They basically heard us out, thought it was a good idea, and said, ‘Good luck,’” Arbaca said.
So Arbaca and McDaniels moved on to the administration and finance department where they eventually got some people on board.
“I told them what I wanted to do and they told me to go for it,” Arbaca said.
With the support of Betty Roberts, former vice president of administration and finance, and funds from the department, Arbaca and his colleague began implementing their ideas.
“Manny had such a belief in [sustainability],” Roberts said. “He had such an eagerness to make it work on a university level. That enthusiasm. That tenacity. That drive. It all came out of this man. I was just there to move barriers and support him.”
The program started in the summer of 2009 as a test pilot with four recycling bins on campus and a couple hundred pounds of trash collected from it per year.
Arbaca got his undergraduate degree in 2010 and decided to attend graduate school at UCM to get his master’s in occupational safety management with an emphasis on sustainability.
When he graduated in 2012 with his graduate degree, there were 4,500 bins in use to recycle millions of pounds of trash a year.
“These recycling efforts save the university about $75,000 a year,” said Steven Boone, associate dean of the College of Science and Technology.
Boone knew Arbaca through his recycling efforts and asked Arbaca to assist him in writing a set of strategies to guide UCM’s efforts in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which became the Climate Action Plan. This plan was part of the university’s committment to carbon neutrality through the President’s Climate Commitment.
“With his work in the sustainability office, Manny was the obvious choice to work on that,” Boone said.
In addition to kick starting the recycling program, Arbaca created the Office of Sustainability on campus and named himself the sustainability coordinator.
“This was the only student run-office with a budget and the authority to make approved campuswide decisions at the time,” Arbaca said.
As Arbaca’s success with the campus sustainability efforts grew, so did recognition of his efforts.
Warrensburg city officials became aware of the sustainability program and approached Arbaca about creating a citywide program as a way to expand the campus initiative.
“The mayor asked me to sit down with them and discuss a program for the city,” Arbaca said. “I decided, why not? I wanted this to be a culture thing, not just a campus thing.”
Former Mayor Baird Brock worked with Arbaca on this program and was pleased with the result.
“I really enjoyed working with Manny,” said Brock, professor emeritus of economics. “He did just tremendous work. The program was very successful for the city and is still doing quite well.”
So in 2011, Arbaca and one of his colleagues, Taylor Hermann, worked with the city of Warrensburg to write a grant for the city’s own sustainability program.
“We were extremely pleased to work with Manny on this project,” said Jacquie Estes, executive assistant for the city of Warrensburg. “The city has been able to divert waste from the landfill and has been able to set a good example of stewardship to our community.”
When he graduated in 2012, Arbaca worked with Sen. Claire McCaskill’s re-election campaign.
After the election, Arbaca landed a job at the University of Kansas as a recycling operations coordinator. Arbaca said his favorite part of his job is helping students make the program their own.
“I have a 100 percent student funded program here,” he said. “I get to tell them that this is their program. I get to show them that it can be fun. It is hard to educate an entire culture if you don’t first educate and engage the students.”
So, to his own surprise, Arbaca’s interest in recycling has proven wildly successful and taken him down a path he could not have imagined before transferring to UCM.
“I doubt if I didn’t transfer to UCM I would be where I am at now,” he said.“Without that first spark from Dr. Roberts, I would have never started all of this. Without the help of my mentors, I would have just left this for future generations to handle.”
Although Arbaca has left UCM, he made a lasting impression. In fact, UCM was awarded the Climate Leadership Award in 2012 due in large part to Arbaca’s efforts while he was a student on campus.
“As the president says, this award is really his award,” Boone said. “UCM was a good incubator for his ideas. From that, he was able to apply those ideas elsewhere.”
And Estes said the city of Warrensburg has been working to expand Arbaca’s program by working with Heartland Waste to start glass recycling as well.
As for Arbaca, his current plans are to continue working with KU to make its recycling program the best in the country.
“I will start there, and then who knows,” Arbacca said. “I may play around some more with politics later in life, but for now I am completely happy playing with trash.”