Creating the next generation of environmental leaders

This fall, a group of incoming freshmen will get to campus before school starts and embark on adventurous outings intended to deepen their understanding of environmental sustainability.

Students who participate in the Community for Ecological Leaders will pick one of five orientation trips on the eve of fall term. Then once school starts they'll live together in a sustainability-themed floor in a residence hall.

The idea is to create a community of students who understand the importance of environmental sustainability, and who want to take on environmental challenges. Activities include films, lectures, sustainable meals and weekend excursions related to environmental studies.

About 35 freshman are expected to participate in one of five orientation trips, starting Sept. 22, said Shelley Bowerman, co-curricular program coordinator in the Office of Sustainability at the University of Oregon.

"The trips allow students to gain a sense of place and to better understand how we interact with our environment," she said. "It's time to build community and learn how to make sustainable changes to our society."

The program began five years ago with a single trip: Project Tomato, in which students ride bikes to nearby farms, talk to farmers, camp out and learn about the importance of local agriculture. The trip culminates when students descend on the Urban Farm expansion site south of campus and pick about 900 pounds of tomatoes which were planted in the spring. They process the tomatoes into pizza sauce, which is frozen and then served during Local Foods Night in the dining halls.

The other trips are: H2Oregon, which features a two-day backpacking trip along the McKenzie River; Pedal Project, in which students build their own bikes with help from UO Bicycle Program and then go on a bicycle camping trip; Coast Conscious, which features a four-day trip along the Oregon Coast; and new this year, Salmon Nation, in which students travel along the Columbia River and learn about the confluence of fisheries, energy and river ecology.

Claire Schechtman, who graduated in June with a degree in international studies with a focus on food justice, participated in the inaugural Project Tomato as a freshman. 

"it seemed like a great opportunity to learn about something I wanted to learn about, that wasn't strictly academic," she said. "It was really fun."

But it was more than just fun, she said.

"it was the beginning of a path," she said."It was a major moment in my college career.

"It was very influential. It was a great way to get to know Eugene. It helped me fall in love with Eugene." 

Now she's putting her knowledge to work, working as a marketing intern at Sprout!, the Springfield farmer's market, and developing plans to launch a food cooperative geared for students.

"After four years of learning about the importance of growing food, I get to actually do it," she said.

Tim Christie