Reena Ramos, Laura Hochstetler, José Chiquito and Seth Lapp, the four students who are participating in the Sustainability Leadership Semester, are embarking on a journey that will take them through the ecosystems of the Elkhart and St. Joseph rivers all the way to their destination: Lake Michigan.

So far, the journey has been an enjoyable one for the participants.

“The trip is an important opportunity to navigate the local watershed in the most experiential way possible,” said Ramos, a senior.

However, the trip isn’t just interacting with the flora and fauna along the waterways. There is some hard work involved, as sophomore sustainability studies and sociology double major Chiquito can attest.

“While the trip has been fun so far, rowing for five hours straight tends to get quite tiring,” Chiquito said. “The best part of the trip has been getting immersed in a region that most don’t explore all that often. The river may seem lifeless to some, but once you spend some time in the area, there is much life to be found.”

The canoe trip is just one of the many aspects of the curriculum that students can experience as part of the Sustainability Leadership Semester (SLS). SLS is an experiential learning program open to all majors, offered during the fall semester through Goshen College at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center near Albion, IN.

The faculty that work with the SLS program are Joel Pontius, Jonathon Schramm, Dave Ostergren and Tom Hartzell.

The SLS credit consists of 15 credits over five courses. The credit is designed to integrate into the sustainability studies and environmental science programs, but can be used to obtain a certificate in sustainability for use on a professional resume. The credit has the ability to be used toward a sustainability minor. Non-GC students may enroll only for the SLS program and transfer the credit back to their home institution.

The aim of the program is to provide students with a focus on building and maintaining communities. Students who participate in SLS live at Merry Lea in two Reith Village cottages for the duration of the 14-week program.

The learning community aspect of the program is set up in this manner to provide a close-knit environment for the students and staff for the purposes of learning sustainability on a community level.

Interdisciplinary major and environmental science minor Laura Hochstetler has had a positive experience living at Merry Lea.

“Initially, I thought I would miss out on certain opportunities by not living on campus,” said Hochstetler. “During my time in SLS, I have found that this isn’t the case. I’ve formed relationships with my fellow SLS participants and my professors that have made missing out on on-campus activities less important than expected.”

In addition to living in a learning community, students who participate in SLS take frequent field trips over the course of the semester to further the immersive experience of the program and to allow students to conceptualize what they have learned in class.

These field trips occur at least once a week and allow the students to supplement their curriculum. For example, students can take a trip to Fort Wayne for a meeting with Mayor Tom Henry at Citizens Square and later proceed to a sustainable meat farm, Gunthorp Farm, in LaGrange.  The field trips were a highlight for former SLS participant and Goshen College alumnus David Leaman-Miller.

“The opportunity to meet new people and make new connections while working on sustainability-related tasks is an important aspect of the experience,” said Leaman-Miller.

However, the experience of SLS isn’t without its challenges. Leaman-Miller found that just being present in the environment and not getting distracted was something he struggled with for a time in SLS.

Ultimately, the time in SLS is a growing experience. The program helps participants to approach problems with creative, environmentally sustainable solutions.

“I feel that the SLS program is important because it provides students with the opportunity to understand sustainability not only on a personal level, but on local and global levels as well,” said Ramos.