When University of Mary Washington students return from spring break to settle back into their semester, freshman Maggie Magliato’s project will just be beginning.
With gardening shears in hand, she will begin the process of removing invasive ivy throughout campus by clipping the ivy into sections, rolling it up to remove it, carefully digging up the roots and finally, pulling it off the trees to be composted. She will work quickly but carefully, mindful of the birds’ nests and trees nearby.
“It’s more of an adventure to me than just a school project and I feel like I am making an impact on campus, even as a freshman,” she said.
Magliato, who plans to major in environmental science, is one of 16 members of the Greenhouse, a living-learning community focused on sustainable living.
In completing her capstone project as part of the community, Magliato will remove a plant that hinders native plant growth, deteriorates buildings on campus and keeps new plants from growing.
The Greenhouse is one of five current living-learning communities at UMW, anchoring 93 freshmen not only to a specific first-year seminar of interest, but to a group of classmates who they can also call friends.
The other four communities focus on social justice, personal empowerment and feminism, leadership development and business.
Along with the other living-learning communities, students in Greenhouse live as a community in Randolph Hall, and take their first-year seminar together.
In their first-year seminar, “Writing Ecology: Literature and Environment in the U.S. and Latin America,” Associate Professor of Spanish Jeremy Larochelle led the class through a semester of literature and environmental studies, also known as ecocriticism. Larochelle also serves as the faculty adviser of the Greenhouse community.
“I feel strongly that the LLC experience made for a more engaged class,” said Larochelle. “The fact that they all knew each other from before the class met for the first time established a special classroom dynamic.”
To sophomore program assistant Kathryn Erwin, the Greenhouse functions as “a little family,” both inside and outside the classroom.
Erwin, with the help of the Office of Residence Life, created Greenhouse during her freshman year after a gap year living in Norway, where she spent time as an exchange student finding a passion for sustainable living though the green lifestyle of Norwegians. She is now working towards a degree in international business.
“It almost felt like a duty in a way to create an environment where people could foster their passions and find their calling so that they could feel as confident in their future as I do in mine,” said Erwin.
Immediately, Erwin said, her students felt comfortable in their surroundings at UMW, making the switch from high school to college a breeze.
“Every day they get to come back home with 16 people they already know and consider friends…I really think it makes that transition easier and makes their lives more enriched and supported really early on,” she said.
Magliato said living with other eco-interested peers helps her and others realize they are not alone in their goals and interests.
“I feel like we inspire each other to be better and more sustainable,” she said.
The goal, Erwin said, is to foster each student’s passion individually. “This is not a one-path thing,” she said.
Provost Jonathan Levin knows firsthand the impact living-learning communities can make. Levin came to UMW with experience at SUNY-Purchase as the Dean of the School of Humanities, where he oversaw very successful living-learning community programs.
“College in general is thought of as a ‘learning community,” Levin said, “but [formal living-learning communities] bring a deeper, fuller dimension to that phrase.”
Levin hopes the programs at UMW will impact students in a positive way and that they will continue to grow.
“[Living-learning communities] are working when students learn more, and more deeply, because of them,” he said.
For Professor Meghan Conley, the adviser of the Justice for All living-learning community, the opportunity to shift the classroom setting from “teacher to student” to a more collaborative conversation helps students become better critical thinkers and learners, especially in an environment where student discuss controversial issues.
“I think that’s something that we should do more of with first year students, so that everyone learns that their voice is really important in the learning process,” Conley said.
The capstone projects each Greenhouse member will complete, like Magliato’s, will help continue the progress of sustainability at UMW.
Other projects include Caleb Phillips’ goal of replacing the paper-covered straws at the Eagle’s Nest with unwrapped straws, and Austen Weathersby’s integration of an environmental seminar in a campus Bible study.
In addition to the students’ capstone projects, their volunteer efforts on and off campus are plentiful.
In the fall, the Greenhouse participated in Friends of the Rappahannock’s Riverfest, where they volunteered by passing out crabs to hungry guests.
The group also traveled to Pittsburgh, Pa., for Power Shift 2013 in October, and recently visited the Stafford County Landfill, where recycling from UMW is dropped off.
At this 600-acre parcel of land with 400-foot tall mountains of trash, the students found a new aspect of education.
“It brings in an element of accountability that you don’t usually get when you take environmental science in school,” said Weathersby.
Next year, the majority of the Greenhouse freshmen will move on to the newly established conceptual living community stationed in Mason Hall, where 20 sophomores will live in green living housing.
Next year, the Greenhouse will continue on with new freshman and continue to grow with other living-learning communities on campus.
In the 2014-2015 academic year there will be nine living-learning communities housing 187 students, according to the Office of Residence Life.
The overall goal is to see 30 percent of incoming freshman in living-learning communities in the next five years, according to Margot Jebb, area coordinator for Marshall, Russell, Mason and Randolph.
“We want to do what’s best for the students, so if this is catching on and students are really enjoying their experience then we’re going to do what we need to do to keep doing that,” she said.