June 5, 2018, Adrian, Michigan – Rain gardens, berms and swales, Permaculture, eco-systems, zero waste, watersheds, bio-regions, planting guilds – this is the language of a two-week summer program for selected Barry University and Siena Heights University students as they explore and experience the environment and learn to work with and for nature.
Now in its second year, the Environmental Leadership Experience brought a disparate group of students to the Adrian Dominican Motherhouse May 13-27, 2018. Through team work, hands-on work, talks, meditation, and tours of local sustainability efforts, the students learn about eco-systems and the principles and practices of Permaculture, a system of learning from and working with the systems of nature in designing and implementing agriculture.
The program is coordinated by Sister Corinne Sanders, OP, Director of the Congregation’s Sustainability Office; Elaine Johnson, Permaculture Specialist for the Adrian Dominican Sisters; and Sister Carol Coston, OP, founding Director of Permaculture. Both Siena Heights and Barry Universities collaborate in the program. Speakers included Sister Patricia Siemen, OP, Prioress of the Congregation and former Director of the Center for Earth Jurisprudence; and staff members from local sustainability sites that students visited.
Participants spent much of their time outdoors, working in the permaculture area of the Motherhouse. Service projects included installing deer fencing around the community garden; conducting a waste audit of the Motherhouse; planting an edible forest garden; and building a vermiculture system, in which worms are used to compost organic waste. In a blog, students described their experience and what they’d learned.
A key experience for Pa Sheikh Ngom, a Barry University international business major from Gambia in West Africa, came toward the end of the experience. “We saw everything we talked about [earlier in the experience] come together.” After spending their time drawing sketches of a garden, the students had the opportunity to plant trees and shrubs.
But along with specific skills needed to work in agriculture and to be good stewards of the environment, the students learned to think in a new way about the environment and about life.
“As humans we impose so much on our surroundings – but nature was already there,” said Ashley Ferguson, a Master’s of Social Work candidate at Barry University. “Now I understand that you can look to nature to learn how to build.” She hopes to use some of what she learned in the program to enhance her own garden.
The daily practice of meditation and opportunities to speak to the Sisters also gave the students inspiration and a new perspective. Matthew Mohammed, a business and mathematics major at Barry, said the experience “motivated and inspired me to want to travel more. [The Sisters] showed me that there’s more to life than the simple problems we go through every day.” Matthew said he also learned to appreciate the beauty around him – whether the buildings in Miami or the natural surroundings in Michigan.
The students – most of whom had never met one another before the Environmental Leadership Experience – came to see themselves as part of a team.
“Through this experience, we have developed a deeper understanding of what the term ‘sustainability’ truly means, and learned that simple changes, big and small, can be quite effective at making a difference,” wrote Stephanie Bingham, Associate Professor of Marine Biology at Barry University, in her blog entry. “In the process, we have also built strong alliances in our quest for creating a more sustainable future for ourselves and those who come after us. … We leave this experience inspired to do our small parts in raising the level of consciousness surrounding more sustainable and ecologically responsible approaches.”