Protecting Our Planet: A Commitment to Global Well-Being
Last October, Pennsylvania lawmakers gathered to hear testimony on how local communities deal with stormwater management and the worsening environmental, social, and economic impacts that result from major storms and subsequent flooding.
Many of the elected officials in attendance that day represented Southeastern Pennsylvania districts within the Perkiomen Creek’s 362-square-mile geographic area, which includes Ursinus College—an institution with a more than 150-year vested interest in its surrounding community.
“We must collectively own this issue,” Ursinus Director of Sustainability Kate Keppen ’05 said during the House Democratic Policy Committee Hearing. “We can’t be complacent.”
Ursinus is uniquely positioned to help.
Keppen and Ursinus President Robyn Hannigan were among the community stakeholders invited to provide context surrounding disruptive stormwater issues and their lasting impact on infrastructure. As policymakers seek novel solutions to these problems, colleges such as Ursinus view potential answers through a collaborative, multidisciplinary lens.
Ursinus is an experimentation hub, Hannigan and Keppen said, where research, innovation, and dialogue occur organically. Partnerships across the community could lead to potential solutions, with a liberal arts institution at the forefront.
“Climate change feels daunting,” Keppen recently told Ursinus Magazine. “I think a lot of people feel that way. But at Ursinus, we really focus in on how we can be more sustainable and healthier, and how we can contribute to that on a global scale.”
Just a few weeks after delivering the testimony on behalf of Ursinus, Hannigan signed the international Okanagan Charter during her inauguration ceremony. It was a first for a liberal arts college, and it signified Ursinus’s commitment to embedding health into all aspects of campus culture—and across the entire student experience—while leading health promotion, action, and collaboration locally and globally.
“Ursinus is taking an explicit stance in favor of health, equity, social justice, and sustainability for all, while recognizing that the well-being of people, places, and the planet are interdependent,” Hannigan said in her inauguration speech.
While mental and physical well-being are paramount under this new charge—Ursinus created a new division of health and wellness, uniting athletics, clinical services, and prevention and advocacy—the focus on environmental health is just as important, as evidenced by a new commitment to sustainability efforts, and a by ensuring that Keppen’s work isn’t independent of that of the health and wellness division.
“The health of the planet is directly tied to the health of its people,” said Ursinus Director of Prevention and Advocacy Katie Bean who, along with Hannigan, is among an Ursinus contingent leading a panel discussion at the 2023 “Educating for the Unknown: Liberal Arts in the Age of Climate Change,” conference at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif.
“Clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food—they’re all critically important, and when they’re compromised, they’re detrimental to both the environment and to our health,” she said.
Ursinus’s core curriculum is grounded in inquiry and encourages students to ask more questions while seeking solutions at the intersection of disciplines to the world’s most pressing problems. For environmental sustainability, that includes careful consideration of what should matter most to people when considering the health of the planet and our own relationships to it.
Student experiences have included food systems cocurricular programs; learning with indigenous communities to reveal new solutions to food insecurity (specifically related to Ursinus’s “Welcome Home” project with the Delaware Tribe of Indians); and connecting food insecurity to emerging threats of novel viruses associated with climate change.
“We require students to think about things from different perspectives,” Bean said. “That enables them to see the impact of their action from a broad view. Our students are thoughtful and introspective, and they’re going to make choices that will impact the greater good. That’s the hope.”
Ursinus’s Office of Sustainability, which Keppen oversees, integrates environmental stewardship with curricular, cocurricular, and extracurricular experiences and learning opportunities. Students work on the campus farm—where they grow and harvest fruit, vegetables, and herbs—and the sustainability fellows program offers leadership and professional development opportunities to students from all majors.
“Since Robyn began as president, we’ve been really asked to ramp up our leadership role with sustainability on campus and in the community,” Keppen said. “There’s an urgency now, with climate change, and our students can see it. They want to be changemakers because they want a better future for themselves. And colleges like ours are able to enact change.”
As Ursinus forges this new path, the college is creating a roadmap for other institutions of higher learning to not only seek out, but also to intentionally build transdisciplinary programs that accelerate the development and implementation of solutions to environmental issues such as climate change.
Doing so invites all members of the college community to participate in problem-solving endeavors that engage the campus and its local and state partners in working through challenges—both present and yet unknown—related to climate preparedness and resilience.
To read more about how an Ursinus liberal arts education is preparing students to solve environmental issues through a multidisciplinary lens, read “Taking Root” in this issue of Ursinus Magazine.