Growing Leaders in Sustainability
MSU’s experiential learning programs prepare students for environmental stewardship careers
Michigan State University’s 5,300-acre campus is the ideal laboratory for students interested in building a greener future. With more than 600 courses incorporating sustainability into the curriculum or through experiential learning, the university is preparing tomorrow’s leaders in environmental stewardship.
In addition, MSU is working toward the goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2050. By integrating the work necessary to meet this goal into research and curricular opportunities, the university also can create high-impact experiences for students and enhance student success.
The Residential Initiative on the Study of the Environment, or RISE, is a living-learning program for first- and second-year students with an interest in the environment. Open to any major, the students live in Bailey Hall and, on top of their classes, participate in co-curricular activities.
Individual students may also propose and lead their own project. Particularly, students are encouraged to explore undergraduate research opportunities and are connected with MSU researchers who share their passion area.
“When a student can meet and work alongside the MSU faculty doing research in their area of interest, we know there exists a greater likelihood of academic success,” says Laurie Thorp, RISE director.
Alassane Sow, a first-year student in the College of Natural Science, is working with Greg Bonito, associate professor in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, on a process for growing morel mushrooms year-round. This could allow farmers to earn profit outside the growing season.
“This project is an intersection of my passion for fungi and my previous experience farming,” says Sow. “It has been great at teaching me more mycology and opening more opportunities to conduct research.”
Recently, RISE partnered with MSU’s Burgess Institute to open the Venture Kitchen as a space for students to develop food-based startups and products. The fully licensed commercial kitchen in the MSU Union is designed to support and encourage student food-based innovation and businesses.
“The hands-on opportunities immediately drew me in,” says Ben Bridge, a first-year student in the College of Engineering. “However, what stood out to me most is that RISE goes beyond just environmental endeavors; their main focus is on making students better servant leaders. They want to help cultivate my skill set and curiosity, which in turn would lead to environmental consciousness.”
Finding a place to belong
MSU has long been known for its living-learning programs, smaller learning communities that allow students who share similar academic interests to live together in a designated residence hall.
“The RISE program has given me so much support in finding out what I want to pursue in my future,” says Catherine Maurer, a sophomore studying biosystems and agricultural engineering. “My first semester was a tough transition, and the advising and support from RISE was integral to my mental health and success at MSU.”
As a residential learning program, the RISE staff can provide in-hall academic advising and peer tutoring. There are also weekly workshops to engage students in further hands-on learning and provide skills for academic success. Topics include time management, healthy study habits, purpose-finding and mental health care.
“As we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, we are focused on how to best serve students dealing with that trauma,” says Jorhie Beadle, RISE assistant director. “We started hosting ‘crafternoons’ as a time when students can get a reprieve from too much time in their heads and in front of computers. It is also a safe space for students to talk about the daily stressors of being in college.”
Feeling empowered to make change
Five miles south of Bailey Hall is the 15-acre MSU Student Organic Farm, part of the Horticulture Department in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. The farm was created in 1999 by a group of students who were interested in learning how to grow food sustainably, and by 2002 they’d expanded to become the first year-round community supported agriculture, or CSA, program in Michigan. CSA members pay a fee and in return, receive seasonal produce grown by students on the farm.
“I do not have green thumbs and cannot grow a vegetable garden on my own. However, our family cares about eating fresh, locally produced organic vegetables,” says Antoinette Tessmer, associate professor in the Eli Broad College of Business and long-time member of the Student Organic Farm CSA. “The MSU CSA has been a great solution for our family. The students work hard on customer service whether that is in person or via email.”
Today, the farm is a certified organic, year-round teaching and production farm. It offers an immersive, hands-on farming experience for undergraduate crew members, participants of the Organic Farmer Training Program and volunteers. The farm also collaborates with MSU faculty to offer courses in organic farming, internships, interdisciplinary educational activities and research opportunities.
“Ultimately growing the produce isn’t the point; we are making a difference by growing people to be agents that feel empowered to make change,” says Sarah Geurkink, the farm manager. “I love the moment when I can stand back and the student crew is operating on its own. They are talking to each other, figuring out what to do next and taking pride in ownership.
“These students find a power they didn’t realize they had.”
Seeding a sustainable future
Among the many resources and programs at the Student Organic Farm, the Organic Farmer Training Program is open to beginning farmers, homesteaders, educational gardeners and food system managers. Participants go on to successful endeavors in small-business farming, restaurant food distribution and youth-based garden learning opportunities.
Similarly, graduates of RISE hold jobs in solar energy production, agriculture research and production, environmental education and policy, urban gardening and food education, addressing food system inequities and packaging. Many also pursue master’s and doctoral degrees.
“RISE has benefitted my education by filling in the gaps not often taught at school and by nourishing real-world skill development,” Bridge says. “They helped us make four-year plans for college so we could look at how we want our classes to aid in our long-term goals. They brought in speakers who challenged us to think about real problems that we may have to apply our education to in the future.”
Alumnus Tremaine Phillips enjoys his continued connection with RISE, including talking to current students about possible career paths in clean energy and climate mitigation and adaptation. After graduating in 2008 with a degree in environmental economics and policy with a minor in environmental studies and a specialization in geographical information systems, Phillips received a master’s in public policy and a law degree from Ohio State University.
“As a Black student interested in addressing the impacts of climate change, I wanted to meet leaders in the field who looked like me and had an understanding of both environmental justice and injustice,” says Phillips. “In a big place like MSU, RISE gave me a community and connections with faculty, staff and alumni that provided some of my best experiences. RISE is a family and a network I’ll have for the rest of my life.”
In 2019, Phillips was appointed to the Michigan Public Service Commission by Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Prior to the appointment, he worked in the public and private sectors in roles focused on accelerating the nation’s transition to clean, renewable and reliable energy resources.
“Our students leave with the communication and leadership skills to address big problems — like climate change — from a cross-disciplinary perspective,” Thorp says. “In an increasingly divisive world, they have the experience and know-how to advance progress.
“They come away with a sense of belonging and purpose.”