Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2013

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Corrie Searls '14, an art history major from Minneapolis, at the site of her dream internship last summer, Christie's auction house at New York City's Rockefeller Plaza. Photo by Karsten Moran

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College launches sustainability plan

College launches sustainability plan
Art history professor Abigail Van Slyck at the opening of the Office of Sustainability in August

It includes a renovated historic landmark with a new mission, best selling novelist Julia Alvarez speaking on campus, and a slew of new courses focused on environmental justice


Building on its pioneering role in environmental studies and stewardship, the College has committed to an even bigger idea: teaching and modeling the principles of sustainability.

Sustainability is the ideal of balancing societal, economic and environmental considerations so as to ensure the health and wellbeing of humans and natural systems now and in the future.

“Sustainability reflects our understanding that healthy environments, healthy communities and economic wellbeing are all connected. You can't attain one without the others,” said Roger Brooks, chair of the College's Sustainability Steering Committee.

In late August, the College opened a new Office of Sustainability in the historic Steel House at the south end of campus and unveiled a comprehensive Sustainability Plan that includes:

• Infusing sustainability principles across the curriculum and adding new courses in sustainability-related issues through many different departments.

• Offering grants to support student-initiated sustainability projects and programs.

• Making campus buildings more resource efficient. For example, a geo-thermal heating and cooling system, energy-saving lighting and other environmentally responsible features resulted in the new Science Center earning gold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

• Supporting collaborations between the College and local community organizations that model sustainability, such as the end-of-year Give 'n' Go Program through which departing students donate items to community organizations, and collaborations between the student-run Sprout Garden and FRESH New London, a sustainable food nonprofit.

The College's commitment to sustainability is intertwined with its history, beginning with the creation of its first teaching garden in 1928 and, three years later, the founding of the Arboretum. In the 1950s, groundbreaking environmental research by botany professors Richard Goodwin and William Niering, helped establish the modern American conservation movement and led to the creation in 1968 of one of the first environmental studies majors in the country, originally called human ecology (see related story).

Since the 1990s, teaching and research in the College's five interdisciplinary academic centers have highlighted the interconnections among environmental, economic and community issues on both a local and global scale.


Best-selling novelist Julia Alvarez '71 to speak on sustainability

Julia Alvarez '71, poet, essayist and author of 14 novels, including “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents” and “In the Time of the Butterflies,” will speak on sustainability and writing Tuesday, Nov. 5, at 7 p.m. in the 1962 Room in Crozier-Williams, followed by a book signing. The event is free and open to the public.

Alvarez, writer in residence at Middlebury College, and her husband, Bill Eichner, are the founders of a sustainable coffee farm and literacy project in the Dominican Republic. Her most recent book, “A Wedding in Haiti: The Story of a Friendship,” is a memoir of their trip to Haiti to attend the wedding of a young worker at the coffee farm and a later return trip to check on their friends after the earthquake.

Alvarez was born in the United States and grew up in the Dominican Republic. At Connecticut College she was a student of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet William Meredith, who introduced her to the famed Breadloaf Writing Conference in Vermont.
“I fell in love with Robert Frost country,” she said. She subsequently transferred to and graduated from Middlebury.
Her years at Connecticut College were foundational to her writing identity, she said. The College's Benjamin T. Marshall Poetry Prize, which she won two years running, is still listed on her curriculum vitae.

“For an immigrant girl — just seven years in America — to win this prize in my second language was so affirming,” she said. “Connecticut College never gets the credit for me because I transferred, but in fact, that's where it all began.”


Sustainability Office's home shows
preservationists' mettle


After a seven-year preservation effort, the College's historic Steel House has reopened with a modern role: as the new Office of Sustainability.

The Bauhaus-style house at the south end of campus is a rare surviving example of a prefab housing concept displayed at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago.

Winslow Ames, founding director of the neighboring Lyman Allyn Art Museum, and his wife, Anna, had the house and one next to it (made of asbestos cement panels) erected in 1933 on a small plot of land near the museum. The College acquired both structures in 1949 and used them for decades as faculty housing.

By the mid-2000s, the Steel House was no longer occupied and had deteriorated into a rusty eyesore. But with grant support, the College was able to have the building disassembled, restored off site, and returned to its original foundation. Like the restored asbestos-cement Winslow Ames House next door, the Steel House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Essentially an 800-square-foot box made of insulated metal panels, the Steel House is “a very early example of modern architecture in the United States,” said Abigail Van Slyck, associate dean of the faculty and Dayton Professor of Art History. “This project has preserved an important piece of American history.”

The Steel House will provide office space for Manager of Sustainability Josh Stoffel plus gathering and meeting space for student organizations related to sustainability. It has also lent its name to the Steel House Sustainability Grant program for student sustainability initiatives.

The building's design actually incorporated many early sustainability features, including a compact footprint, super-tight construction, modern materials, passive solar and ventilation features, and prefab construction. It provided safe, affordable family housing, said Doug Royalty, a historic preservation specialist who managed the project along with Van Slyck. Unfortunately, the builders never garnered enough sales to scale up manufacturing.

Financial support for the preservation project was provided by the Dr. Scholl Foundation, the State Historic Preservation Office, the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation and individual donors. A landscape plan featuring native plantings and a rain garden was donated by Alice Eckerson '82.


In search of justice for all

Over the past two years, 18 faculty members from science, government, art and other disciplines traveled to India, Peru and South Africa to study global environmental justice. That's the concept that environmental benefits and burdens should be
shared fairly.

The fieldwork and further research, made possible by a grant from the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation, has led to the creation of 12 courses (so far) in environmental justice and revisions to 10 others. The new classes include:

• Toxins in the Nervous System: Environmental Justice Issues (Joseph A. Schroeder, associate professor of psychology), which examines how marginalized populations are disproportionately affected by environmental pollutants such as lead, mercury, PCBs and pesticides;

• Environmental Art and its Ethics (Karen Gonzalez Rice, Mercy Assistant Professor of Art History), which looks at how “environmental artists” protest overconsumption, pollution and environmental injustice; and

• Environmental History and Social Justice (Leo Garofalo, associate professor of history and director of the Center for Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity), which traces the impact of conquest and colonization on environmental history, and how the exploitation of resources has often provoked
bitter struggles.


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