Prior to this semester, the interactions I (Gretta) had with Merry Lea were few and far between. My first year I visited for an orientation activity and for Ecology and Evolution labs, then my junior year I helped harvest honey with Pollinators in Peril. Each of these experiences followed with thoughts about how I should return to explore the trails, wetlands and prairies… but I never felt particularly inclined to drive to the faraway land of Merry Lea just for an afternoon.

While this is not everyone’s experience with Goshen College’s “South Campus,” we think many students see Merry Lea as inaccessible because it is unfamiliar and seems far from “North Campus.” Through participating in the Sustainability Leadership Semester, SLS, our cohort has the opportunity to experience Merry Lea in a new way — one that illuminates the educational, social and emotional benefits of connecting with the natural environments Goshen College offers students through the unique South Campus.

During our third week in SLS, we embarked on an eight-day canoe trip that is integral to the program, starting just north of Merry Lea and finishing at Lake Michigan. For us, this trip was a driving factor for choosing to spend the semester at Merry Lea, while for others, it was a dreaded portion they wished to avoid. Regardless of our initial attitudes, however, spending a week traveling through the Elkhart River Watershed connected us to our student cohort, the Merry Lea faculty and staff, and community members. These connections created a focused and close-knit learning environment that has persisted throughout the semester, which is something that is often hard to emulate on the main campus. 

Following the canoe trip, we launched into regular classes, often meeting outside and enjoying flexibility that doesn’t exist the same way during a typical semester. At Merry Lea, we live at Reith Village, which is the sustainably-designed student housing oriented toward fostering a connected student community. We greatly enjoy the opportunities to cook, eat and study together, and have come to appreciate the new friendships that may not have existed outside of SLS. Reith Village includes Merry Lea’s sustainable farm, giving us access to fresh farm food each week through the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. We also have free rein of Merry Lea’s trails, enjoying the opportunity to walk, run and hike throughout the 1,189 acre property. 

We know that SLS only lasts one semester, but the connection we have developed with Merry Lea will last much longer. While not all students can participate in the SLS program, taking advantage of the opportunities Merry Lea offers is available for all students. Merry Lea is not a faraway place that is inaccessible; it’s a short 35-minute drive, including only five turns! If you don’t have access to a car, ask a friend who does if they want to join your adventure! Merry Lea also offers a variety of May term experiences and community events that can help orient people to the environment so they feel more comfortable exploring on their own later. Check the communicator for upcoming events… and if you’re around Reith Village this semester stop by to say hi to the SLSers!