A Hands-On Approach to Appalachian Biodiversity

By: Mathew Roberts

Excursions deep into the mountains and hollers of western North Carolina are not often associated with interdisciplinary adventure and personal growth, or are they? This summer, Ohio University faculty and staff created a course titled “Agroecology and Biocultural Diversity.”

The course was designed with interaction as a core concept. Students began with a basic history of Appalachia, domestication of species and seeds, and how culinary inclusion works as the lifeblood for building biological diversity and forest economy. Then, students embarked on a three-day trip with James Veteto, professor at Western Carolina University and executive director of the Appalachian Institute for Mountain Studies. Veteto led the group through his North Carolina mountainside property, demonstrated the cultural diversity of his apple orchard, revealed time-honored Cherokee customs, and graciously fed the group with the fresh, local flavors of Southern Appalachia.

Appalachian culture has largely been built around poverty. Rugged forms of survival and community agriculture have been prevalent for decades, but these are now seen within the assemblage of naturalist appreciation.

“There is a certain humility and down-to-earthness necessary if you want to get anything done in the region,” Veteto wrote in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. While most class discussions focused on the history of farming, seed saving, and the cultural relevance of food, the greatest moments were spent reflecting about how these lessons can be applied to other issues as well.

Karly Strukamp, an undergraduate education student who took the summer course, will apply the knowledge gained on this trip to her work with middle school children.

“From this trip, I have gained confidence in facilitating these types of hands-on learning experiences,” she said. “When students are able to investigate what they are curious about, they are experiencing true learning.”

There also were more immediate lessons to be learned.

“We also were able to get to some of what us teachers like to call the ‘hidden curriculum,’” Strukamp said. “We were able to tell stories and invest time in our relationships — even with our teachers. At times, our teachers would acknowledge that we were actually teaching them something.”

Immersive learning and exploring one’s curiosity are inherent to this course. There is something beautiful about being right in the focal point of diversity’s potential.

“We were able to look at and touch the different plants and methods we were being introduced to rather than just seeing pictures in a book,” said Taylor Smith, another student who attended. “Environmental issues can be looked at from so many sides and it’s really great to have all those different views when you are talking about sustainable solutions.”

Going to the Appalachian Institute of Mountain Studies made us realize the lack of diversity in our hometowns. Upon return, many students spent the last two days of the course at Solid Ground Farm, a sustainable farm in Millfield dedicated to spreading knowledge about sustainable food and creating biodiverse forest gardens in the southeast Ohio. In addition to developing environmental solutions, spots like Solid Ground Farm are creating a new generation that values diversity. After the farm visit, students finished the course with a project or paper that incorporated the multi-disciplinary nature of the trip. As long as this program continues, Ohio University can be a part of instilling this critical value in future cadres of students.



Enjoying the Journey

It’s been a few months since my last post, and in this time I’ve learned that life does indeed get more exciting with age. I’ve also learned that hard work leads to great opportunities. It is my hope that I continue to be challenged and rewarded as I have been since last spring quarter.

First of all, I am sincerely thankful to the Voinovich School for its flexibility in allowing me to earn credit toward my degree in nontraditional ways. Over the summer I studied abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland with the City and the Environment program, taking a class in sustainable urban planning and another in the history of Edinburgh. This epic six-week adventure was the first step toward my Environmental Sustainability graduate certificate. In addition, I interned with the Cockburn Association, a nonprofit civic trust that aims to uphold the history and integrity of the city through the reviewing of city development plans and the discussion of issues surrounding sustainable transportation and planning. The trip was invaluable not only because of what I learned in the classroom, but what I learned outside of it. Studying abroad is exciting because of the need to adapt quickly to a new environment so that you can accomplish your goals while visiting. The experience was possible because my adviser, Dr. Millesen, approved of my request to have the Environmental Sustainability courses count as electives toward my MPA degree.

This semester I march onward toward the completion of my graduate studies. I’m currently enrolled in Natural Resource Conservation, Environmental Sustainability, Economics of the Environment, and Graphic Design. Yes, there’s a general theme this semester – and then the one “why not, I’ve always been interested and this could benefit my future if I take the marketing/communications route” class. Four classes at the graduate level on semesters has proven to be quite a heavy workload, but I’m excited to be learning more about increasingly pressing issues that have heavy implications on the future of mankind. These are the sorts of challenges that leaders in all walks of life will have to address soon.

In addition to the class load, I am a Teaching Assistant this year with the Global Leadership Center at Ohio University. The experience has been rewarding beyond what I even imagined it could be. As a 2010 alumnus of the challenging program, I am thrilled to be back with it once again, and this time on the other side of it. Involvement with something as adaptive and educational as the GLC from both the student and instructor perspective has illuminated the hard work and commitment it takes to creating the effective leaders of the future. On a separate yet personally satisfying note is the perk that complements working with the GLC – an opportunity to travel abroad! I look forward to our class trip to Vietnam next semester as OU students work closer with students at Nha Trang University.

This year will be exciting, but I’ll have to make sure that I practice what I preach in the classroom. If I expect students to submit quality work, I must be a quality instructor. In addition, I must also submit quality work to my professors and superiors. Leading isn’t a job, but a lifestyle – and I am confident that the Voinovich School and Ohio University have given me the guidance to appreciate this distinction.

Expecting the Unexpected for Year Two

As I bombard my professors’ e-mail accounts with constant approval-seeking that my goals during the two years at the Voinovich School makes any sense, I realize that my second year in the program will be wildly different from my first. While the first year was comprised entirely of MPA courses and practicum experience, the second year will nearly completely feature neither.

As mentioned in my previous post, I will be studying abroad in Scotland this summer for one month, taking GEOG 5560: City and the Environment and HIST 593: Edinburgh since 1750. In addition, I will be interning with the Cockburn Association, an urban planning civic society based in Edinburgh. The plan is to earn two classes worth of credit toward my Environmental Sustainability Graduate Certificate during this time. The first class mentioned above and the internship will fulfill those roles, while the history class will serve to educate students in the program about the city in which we will be living during the duration of the program.

Regarding the Fall, it’ll be interesting enough adjusting to the switch to semesters from quarters. On top of that, I’ll be taking four classes, instead of the usual two-class-one-internship approach through which I’ve been operating these past two quarters. I’ll most likely be volunteering with Rural Action in addition to the class load as well. The biggest challenge of it all, however, will be that each class will be outside of the MPA curriculum and within the various departments of environmental studies, economics, journalism, and political science. None of my classmates I’ve gotten to know over the year will be in any of my classes and the content will be foreign to me. The environmental studies and economics classes will count toward my graduate certificate while the journalism class, Graphics and Audiences, is something I’m taking because I think it could complement my communications background and give me some insight into marketing (in case I decide to go that route). I’m enrolled in the political science class, Environmental Politics/Policy because that’s the sort of policy I’m interested in (along with food policy, which I believe goes hand in hand with it).

Although it seems like I’m disregarding my MPA degree during my second year in the program, I’m actually helping to fulfill it with required elective courses…and then some. By the time Spring semester rolls around, I’ll only have one required MPA class and one required certificate course to take, freeing up some wiggle room for more exploration. Learning should not be held down by parameters established to earn a degree, but instead should evolve beyond such parameters to earn an education. This is what I’ve been excited to earn all throughout the program. And I’m thankful that the Voinovich School offers such an opportunity.

Allow Yourself to be Humbled

Due to some recent events in my personal life, I’ve been more aware of my immediate surroundings than I had been in a while. Just because you’re physically present doesn’t mean you’re invested mentally and emotionally in what’s presently happening around you. In a way, life’s been full of distractions lately, but at the same time it’s made me re-evaluate where I fit in the world and what purpose I have for being here. Also, is it that life’s really complicated, or that I’m just more fully cognizant? It’s just an interesting time to be rewiring my frame of mind while writing papers, crafting the looming budgeting course’s report, researching for my Human Resources internship and GRS work hours, applying for summer internships/jobs, drumming and dancing with Azaguno, figuring out where I am to live next year, and of course, socializing with my peers.

The moral of this naïve blogger’s incredibly short story is that life’s a juggling act. And it’s a beautiful, humbling thing. Judging from what I’ve learned and observed from professors and full-time staff at the Voinovich School, my previous work and internship supervisors, and co-directors of the nonprofit Azaguno, you shouldn’t let experiences outside your comfort zone dissuade you from taking chances. If you make a fool out of yourself, you’ve learned something out of it. Plus it’s a good story later. They’ve made me realize that the more you discover, the more you realize there is so much yet to learn. This is in part why I really want to earn my Environmental Sustainability Certificate at the Voinovich School. Although I only took one environmental health class during my undergraduate studies, I’ve always had an interest in the way humans have impacted the global ecology. The Voinovich School offers an excellent opportunity for me to pursue that interest and potentially pursue a career in the field. These leaders have taught me not to lose sight of my interests, but to prioritize them. They’ve asked me to describe where I’d like my experiences to take me and I have felt guilty of responding with uncertainty every time. However, to my surprise, they’ve told me to embrace such ambiguity. Some of the most interesting people in the world made it not because they followed a linear path to success but because they were open to alternative means of reaching multiple ends.

Everyone should be allowed to do the things they love and take pride in their passions. I think the key to success in anything is learning through experience, acknowledging what you know, but more importantly opening your mind to what you don’t. Be humble, live, and learn.

—Roman Suer