Living and Learning as a Community
A new focus on the environment and sustainability
By Chad Osborne
Imagine your first year of college is filled with experiences that take you outside of the traditional campus classroom and into nature.
It puts you in a kayak on the New River, in a dark, damp cave somewhere beneath the Blue Ridge Mountains or on a beautiful winding path on the rich Appalachian Trail.
Imagine the very first year of your academic career is filled with opportunities to learn about preserving the Earth through sustainable practices and opportunities to bask and soak in the Appalachian culture.
Radford University has developed a program that allows freshmen to explore their interests through its newly developed Environment-Community (ECO) Connections living-learning community, a group of like-minded freshmen living together in a residence hall and are committed to the environment, sustainability, education and leadership.
“Many students are interested in sustainability in the natural world,” explains Brock Cutler, Ph.D., a Radford University faculty member and outdoors enthusiast, who organizes activities and learning engagement opportunities for ECO Connections. “Once they arrive on campus, they begin to learn more about how to put their interests into action, including on our campus.”
The establishment of the ECO Connections underscores the University’s commitment to engage students, faculty and staff to learning, discovering and contributing to positive current and future environmental solutions.
Radford University continues to reduce its carbon footprint in becoming a model institution for sustainability practices in the Commonwealth of Virginia and across the United States. The University has been included in The Princeton Review’s “Top Green Colleges in the Nation” since 2010, and 11 campus buildings have earned either LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) gold or silver certification.
It is only natural for the University to find ways to involve students more in activities that educate them about their environment on campus — helping reduce its carbon footprint — and on a global scale.
ECO Connections began three years ago as a pilot program, of sorts, Cutler explains, to determine where students’ interests lie. “We determined they really liked sustainability initiatives incorporated with outdoor programming, so we re-conceptualized the community to include more outdoor activities and learning opportunities,” he said. “It works out great, because we already have this great resource — the beautiful New River Valley — in our backyard.”
Since the newly developed curriculum began in Fall 2019, students have been busy exploring those resources in the natural beauty that surrounds Radford University.
It began before the semester started and before other students moved to campus. The 20 or so students, who are part of the community, arrived early — five days before classes began — packed their belongings into their rooms in Stuart Hall, then headed to the University’s 380-acre
The students were joined by ECO Connections faculty and staff organizers and spent the night there, getting to know each other through activities. It was two days of trail hiking, canoeing and kayaking on the Little River that flows by Selu, bonfires and later a bike tour through the City of Radford.
Throughout the semester, students have spent even more time on the rivers and trails, but also have participated in a cleanup of the New River and tested their mettle on the Radford University Corporate Park ropes course. On solid, dry land, the group has been treated to a campus tree tour, paying particular attention to the white basswood located at the north end of Jefferson Hall. Last year, it was recognized as a national champion tree by American Forests magazine.
Those are among the many living, breathing and learning opportunities for students in ECO Connections.
“The basic concept of the community is introducing the students to basic concepts of sustainability,” Cutler explains, “and helping them understand what it means to the University, to their communities and to their lives.”