Two female professors smile.

Melanie Keel, left, and Catherine Wright are headed to Ireland to share what they’ve learned about merging community-engagement service learning projects with sustainability efforts.

Dr. Melanie Keel is always on the lookout for ways to help her students put concepts from their course work into action. “I think it makes it real for students, not just assuming or hypothesizing, but actually experiencing it,” says Keel, an assistant professor in the Thayer School of Education.

Often, that involves an alphabet soup of concepts that are near and dear to the hearts of many Wingate faculty members. Next week, Keel and Dr. Catherine Wright, an assistant professor in the religion and philosophy department, are headed to Ireland to share how Wingate is bringing sustainability in higher education (SHE) and service learning/community engagement (SLCE) together in a way that benefits individuals, society and the environment.

Over the past couple of years, Keel, Wright and other faculty members have taken groups to the Outer Banks, Asheville and even to Mississippi on what they call “immersion experiences.” The goal is to help students learn about current issues and work with community partners to help solve problems, hopefully filling their minds with new ideas and getting their hands dirty in the process.

In Mississippi, they worked in fields to learn about food production. On the coast, they helped build an oyster reef into a living sea wall. Closer to home, the students worked with the NC Wildlife Federation’s HAWK (Habitat and Wildlife Keepers) organization and also with the Carolina Thread Trail.

The pilot ventures were so successful that Keel and Wright can’t wait to give their presentation, “Harnessing the Synergistic Effect of Conjoining SLCE and Sustainability in Higher Education to Cultivate Planetary Citizens with an Ecocentric Vision of Democracy and Justice,” which is based on a paper they co-authored with assistant English professor Allison Kellar, at the international conference.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine that there will be two more excited people in Galway next week.

“This (service learning) mission is not only a passion of mine, but coincides with the mission of Wingate University: Faith, Knowledge and Service,” Keel says. “I’ve never presented internationally, so this is a big deal for me.”

Keel and Wright say the push for service learning and sustainability must be interdisciplinary and cooperative, traits that they are illustrating as they head to the International Association for Research on Service-Learning and Community Engagement conference, Sept. 14-16.

Keel is traveling on a Board of Visitors grant, while Wright secured funding through the WINGS (Wingate International Grant for Students) program. They are sharing accommodations, and Wright is using the trip to do double duty. While in Ireland, she’ll research locations for a proposed W’International class on Celtic spirituality and landscapes.

“Without the Board of Visitors and special academic programs like our international programming, we couldn’t do this,” Keel says. “We’re trying to model what we’re talking about.”

Sustainability immersion

Keel and Wright have been demonstrating their own sustainable behavior for a while now, and it’s started rubbing off on their students. Keel wanted those traveling to Mississippi – to a rural area not so different from Wingate – to do more than observe produce being gleaned and packaged for the needy. She wanted them to immerse themselves in the issue and begin thinking about similar ways they could help their own community.

She sees a summer-reading partnership between Wingate University and Wingate Elementary that began this year and the University’s community garden, also a recent venture, as springboards for new service-learning projects with a focus on sustainability.

“For children’s literature, I want to have my students write a literacy curriculum for gardening,” she says. “That’s a sustainable practice that could impact a lot of schools and students across the state.”

In addition to her classroom teaching responsibilities, Wright has a leading role in the University’s sustainability efforts. She says sustainability in higher education has been a growing academic field but has been “siloed” for far too long.

Because sustainability involves a “triple bottom line” – biological ecologies, human societies and economies – she says it’s a natural fit for service learning, especially when students began to grasp the interdependence of all of the concepts.

She says service learning and sustainability are of the most benefit when people “fall in love with their communities and the earth’s ecologies.”

“Then you have the sustenance to change and transform things,” Wright says. “Falling in love with the people and the place will create strong sustainability and community engagement.”

Both Keel and Wright hope to broaden how those around them define SHE and SLCE.

“When they hear ‘community engagement,’ people think ‘volunteering, charity, a one-and-done event,’” Keel laments. “Ideally, engaging with the community becomes part of their lifestyle, a way of understanding their own community’s needs and its strengths and figuring out their part in problem-solving.”

Wright fears that too often people equate sustainability with recycling.

“I want them to see how recycling is part of a bigger web that connects ecology, economics and human communities,” Wright says. “Recycling is a small part of a much bigger picture. And I think we’re starting to get that.”

Sept. 7, 2017