Off-campus sustainability semester creates opportunities for GC students.

On Friday, Sept. 5, four Goshen College students (Hannah Barg, a junior; Mikhail Fernandes, a junior; Jenna Lee, a junior; and Jessie Smucker, a senior) began paddling down the Elkhart River to the St. Joe River towards Lake Michigan. As they go they will meet up with groups from different colleges, business owners, farmers and even mayors in order to learn about the local Elkhart watershed and its health.

This is how the Sustainability Semester begins; actual classes do not begin until Sept. 16, after the end of the canoe trip. The group will reach Lake Michigan on Sept. 13 and then return to Merry Lea, Goshen’s 1,889 acre environmental learning center. The students are living in Reith Village, which contains buildings designed and certified to be sustainable and environmentally friendly.

The classes are staggered, with two courses alternating lecture days and Thursday labs. They will take two four-week-long classes at a time throughout the semester for a total of six classes, equivalent to an average semester credit load for a full time student.

“Our first term is Jonathan [Schramm’s] class, Sustainability and Regeneration, and Lisa [Zimm’s] class, Landscape Limnology,” Barg said. “We will also take Sustainability Projects, which counts as the same thing as junior seminar, as well as Faith, Ethics, and Eco-justice with Jennifer Schrock, and Environmental Policy with Dave Ostergen.”

This off-campus semester comes with many opportunities not only for scholastic growth, but also for career advancement and personal reflection.

Students interact with peers from other colleges as well as potential employers and projects through the canoe trip, but go more in-depth with their required projects.  Students must design and carry out an independent project throughout the semester.

“The Sour House is an option, which is a group of eight different sustainable farmers, like a beekeeper, maple tree tapper [or] goat and chicken farmer that all got together and formed a co-op,” Smucker explained. “They got a grant to buy this old 1870s barn and have been working the past three years to sustainably restore it and are now looking to evolve their business plan and involve the greater community.”

Working with people and the community is a running theme throughout the semester, which the students say is an essential part of their major and concentration.

“We can work at Greencroft, helping the residents extend their vegetable garden and doing other health-related things with them, like waste management and recycling; so, basically directly working with them to feel empowered by the issues we’re addressing,” Lee said.

Other potential projects include Groundfield, where one can work to create parks out of sites where previous toxic waste or factories have harmed the earth; Elkhart water restoration testing and doing biological testing on different water sites; tree research; and various other research opportunities.

The Sustainability Semester also features the famed “sustainability challenges,” yet another example of actual application of class content.

“The challenges make us ask ourselves ‘How can we change our habits in order to make a change?’” Barg said. “We’re asked to think about whatever we feel like we’re not conscious of, and the challenges help us recognize those things and realize what steps to take to fix it. Each class has a two-week challenge associated with it, with themes like food, energy, and water.”

The sustainability semester is an innovative and renowned undergraduate option.

In fact, a PhD student from Michigan State University is writing her dissertation on this program and its current Goshen College students.

“She has interviewed each of us, asking what draws us to this, how we grew up, how we feel about sustainability and the environment,” Smucker said. “She wants to do a qualitative analysis of our programs and evaluate it and the way it impacts students.”

The goal of the semester is to make the students more mindful and friendly toward the environment as well as prepare them for their careers in the sustainable field.