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May 30, 2023, Adrian, Michigan – Eight students from Barry University in Miami and one from Siena Heights University in Adrian began their summer with an intense week of learning outside of the classroom: as participants of the Environmental Leadership Experience. (ELE).
“It’s a new experience,” said Barry University sophomore Sierra Johnson, a marketing and graphic design major. “Being born in Miami and being the youngest of three, I never really had a chance to go out or experience the world.” She and her colleagues explored this new world together during the week of May 7-13, 2023, accompanied by two faculty members from Barry University.
Participants came together to “learn about sustainable agricultural ecosystems,” explained Sister Corinne Sanders, OP, General Councilor and former Director of the Office of Sustainability. “Through the lens of environmental stewardship, the program [offers] hands-on activities on the Adrian Campus and Permaculture Gardens.”
Begun in 2017, ELE made a comeback this summer after years of absence enforced by the COVID-19 pandemic. ELE is a collaborative effort of the universities and the Motherhouse Office of Sustainability.
Activities included a tour of the Motherhouse grounds and the Permaculture Garden and work in the Reflective Garden at the Dominican Life Center. But the students spent a major portion of their time building a two-basin rain garden next to the parking lot of Weber Retreat and Conference Center. Along with serving as a pathway to the labyrinth and Cosmic Walk behind Weber Center, the garden was built “as a means of mitigating the degradation caused by rainwater and snow melt coming from the higher ground,” Sister Corinne explained.
The students rounded out their experience with a tour of the Detroit River, a visit to nearby Hidden Lake Gardens, dinner at a nearby restaurant, and a presentation to the Sisters of their experience at the Motherhouse.
For Anita Zavodska, Professor of Biology at Barry University, the experience in Adrian was a renewal of an enjoyable time in 2019. This year’s experience is “just as wonderful” as in 2019, she said. “We have another wonderful group of students who are really willing to get their hands dirty and work and make a difference,” she said. “It’s like coming home.”
For the students, ELE was not only a new experience of planting seeds in the Motherhouse grounds, but of planting them in their own hearts as well.
“I’ve always wanted to work for the environment,” said Lily Hernandez, a Barry student majoring in biology. As a member of Barry’s Green Team, she hopes to incorporate what she learned through ELE into work at Barry. Yet, as she considers a career as a doctor, she hopes to go beyond her time in college. “Everybody could use [this experience] and be a little more sustainable, whatever you’re going into – being more sustainable, loving Earth,” she said.
Benny Rubinsztejn, a history major at Barry University and a native of Brazil, hopes to begin a second career after 25 years as a stockbroker.
ELE “is like a highway that works both ways, because students learn something new and bring it home,” Benny said. He sees ELE as important not only because of the environmental impact but also because of the impact on human society, at a time of great division and polarity. When people work together on a project such as the rain garden, he said, “you can build some bridges to [other] people so they respect each other. That’s the most important thing right now.”
Both Lily and Sierra were inspired not only by their work through ELE but also by the different vegetation and wildlife they experienced in Michigan. “This week in Michigan continuously reminds us of how important it is to take a moment to appreciate all that we have and all that God has given us,” Sierra wrote in a blog organized by the ELE students.
Read the students’ entries in the blog, and watch a video of the experience below.
By Madelyn Birmingham
Content Writer, Siena Heights University
February 2, 2023, Adrian, Michigan – When she was a little girl, Sharon Weber didn’t spend a lot of time in one place. As a byproduct of her father’s job, her family was constantly relocating, which lent her to experience five different grade schools and a different high school – all of which were Catholic. It is only fitting, then, that as Sharon settled into her adult life, she would remain anchored at one institution, and a Catholic one at that: Siena Heights University.
At one of her elementary schools, Sister Sharon’s instructor was an Adrian Dominican Sister. The Sisters’ contagious passion for life and joyous demeanor drew her to the Adrian Dominican Sisters, and her religious convictions drew her to a dedicated lifestyle.
After graduating high school, she joined the Adrian Dominican Sisters and ended up furthering her education at Siena Heights College (now University). During the first two years, as both a postulant and novice, Sister Sharon was also a full-time student.
Following her first two years, she was qualified to teach at an elementary level. she taught first grade for five years, and seventh grade for one year. During this time, she was continuing her own education after hours and over the summer. After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Sister Sharon completed master’s and PhD degrees from the University of Michigan, an experience that also allowed her to study and teach in Germany at the University of Konstanz.
After completing her formal education, Sister Sharon returned in 1974 to Siena Heights, where the next four decades would serve as a continuation of the lifelong education that comes through teaching and interacting with others. Until her election to the Congregation’s General Council in 1986, Sister Sharon taught chemistry and other science courses, as well as Letters and Sciences courses for the institution.
In one of those years, Sister Sharon was awarded the Sister Eileen K. Rice Award for Teaching – an accomplishment that she still regards as one of the most honorable accolades of her career. After 1993, following a yearlong sabbatical, she returned to Siena Heights to teach and occupied several administrative roles for the university from 1993 to 2022.
Throughout this time, Sister Sharon experienced Siena Heights University from multiple perspectives: student, teacher, Division Chairperson of the Science and Math Division, Acting Director of the Graduate Program, Acting Dean, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Vice President of Academic Affairs, and – while on the General Council – as a Member of the Board of Trustees.
During her time as Acting Director of the Graduate Program, as well as the Acting Dean, Sister Sharon rose to the occasion of satisfying the needs of the university, even above her own personal preferences. Her interim roles were brief but essential and serve as a testament to her commitment to Siena Heights, allowing it to grow as an institution. The administrative roles occupied by Sister Sharon were crucial to the development of Siena Heights University, with her time as the Vice President of Academic Affairs helping to bring about the Nursing and Engineering programs. Additionally, Siena Heights’ introduction of its Online Program began during her time in administration, though she gives substantial credit to Dean Deb Carter during that timeframe for the addition of the Online Program.
Despite these impressive career accolades, Sister Sharon feels the most pride in herself and her career when looking at the successes of other people. She notes: “The most important moments I’m proud of are when I get to listen to how we [the Siena Heights community] have really had a good effect on people’s lives.”
When asked about her inspirations and greatest influences, Sister Sharon spoke fondly of many sources of inspiration in her life. Her family – parents, siblings, and grandparents – were the first she named, but also praised fellow Adrian Dominican Sisters, teachers, Siena Heights faculty and staff, as well as her students. She fondly recalls a story where one of her first-grade students inspired her:
“We were talking about how Jesus calms the storm at sea, and so I was at my dramatic best, and was painting this picture of a storm at sea – with the lightning and thunder and waves and wind – and said to them: ‘Do you think the apostles were afraid?’ And every hand in the room goes up, and I picked a student and said, ‘So what do you think? Were the apostles afraid?’ And the student answered: ‘No Sister, Jesus was in the boat.’ And that day, a six-year-old taught me a lot about faith. There are so many little places where people can inspire you, and you remember it almost sixty years later.”
On the topic of inspiration, there are two very crucial elements that inspired Sister Sharon to stay at Siena Heights for as long as she did, and the two elements are surprisingly simple: Its people and its mission. In the words of Sister Sharon: “Siena is its people, and I think it has a mission that’s worth expending energy on.” She recalls how, while the current mission statement of the university was not verbalized at the time she was a student, the heart of it permeated through the culture and people of Siena Heights University. She credits Siena Heights in her journey to becoming more competent, purposeful, and ethical – as both a student and educator.
For this reason, Siena Heights University serves as a place where Sister Sharon believes seeds are planted, and that from those seeds, many fruits are grown. This impact, she says, is especially prominent in our alumni. Each year, at the alumni awards ceremony, Sister Sharon remains amazed by how many successful alumni credit Siena Heights with integral components that helped to bring about those successes.
Sister Sharon also views Siena Heights as a place where Dominican tradition and the search for truth is fostered and done in a very committed environment, in both the academic world and relational world; additionally, it is a place where lifelong relationships are developed.
As a result of these lifelong relationships, and the search for truth, Sister Sharon Weber was given additional accolades outside of the aforementioned Sister Eileen K. Rice Award. In 2012, she was the recipient of the Zonta of Lenawee’s Amelia Earhart Award, which is given to those who exemplify a pioneering spirit and excellence in their field.
Most recently, upon her retirement in 2022, the Science Hall was officially dedicated as the “Sister Sharon Weber, O.P., Ph.D., Science Hall.” This is a tremendous honor, though Sister Sharon remains very humble in that she believes many other people deserved the same recognition.
Throughout her many years spent at Siena Heights as a student, professor, and administrator, Sister Sharon has witnessed the changes in higher education firsthand. The three differences that struck her as the most prominent include the cost, the technological advancements, and the goals that students have for themselves in attaining a college education – that is, the focus on career rather than on liberal arts education.
When asked about her plans for retirement, Sister Sharon says that they are still in the works. She is enjoying the time she’s been able to spend with her family, as well as enjoying her own personal hobbies, but hasn’t yet figured out her full retirement plans. While she isn’t entirely certain what the future holds, Sister Sharon knows how she wants to be remembered by her students, fellow faculty, and staff:
“I want to be remembered as a Dominican, who, in the search for truth, has tried to listen to all sides.”
Photos courtesy of Siena Heights University