The twelfth cohort of graduate students earned their Masters in Education degrees through North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University this week. Dr. John Miles, Executive Director Saul Weisberg, Graduate Coordinator Joshua Porter and Program Manager Katie Roloson recalled anecdotes and unique qualities of each of the eight grads, while about 100 friends and family watched in support. “They opened my eyes to gas station junk food,” Roloson laughed, invoking the power of sour gummy worms and experiential education.
Snickers bars and red licorice vines were hardly Cohort 12’s only sweet contribution to the Environmental Learning Center community. As the sky changed from gray to golden to grey again, and everyone sat in the Dining Hall looking west toward Diablo Lake and the future, the speakers described what Porter called “the generosity of spirit” that characterized this small group. Roloson noted they were experts at supporting each other, collaborating and holding council, saying, “They were the first cohort where every decision seemed like a group decision.”
Dr. John Miles, the students’ primary professor throughout both their residency and three quarters at WWU, told several stories from their adventures together over the past seven quarters. The audience was transported to Yellow Aster Butte, where he set up a belay with parachute cord down a steep subalpine slope, and to his and his wife, Susan’s, beautiful Bellingham garden, where they would hold summertime classes. One Kentuckian student, Kim Hall, coming from the Peace Corps in Senegal, would have to wrap herself in a sleeping bag to armor herself against western Washington’s July temperatures.
Sahara Suval laughs with Program Manager Katie Roloson behind a Douglas fir-stump podium. Photo by Jessica Haag.
Dr. Miles called the Environmental Learning Center, and the graduates in particular, “a point of light, shining in the North Cascades.” He said he admired them for their courage in taking on what one scholar dubbed “the world macro problem”, and for their refusal to submit to despondency. “Thank you for the opportunity to learn from you and be inspired by you,” he said.
Saul Weisberg, who started the North Cascades Institute almost 30 years ago and, with Miles, initiated the graduate program in 2003, distinguished Cohort 12 for their willingness to continually challenge the habits of their discipline. “More than any other cohort,” he said, “you’ve worked on building bridges outside the bubble of environmental education.” For example, graduate Cait McHugh helped start the Concrete Summer Learning Adventure with the Concrete School District, United General Hospital and the National Parks Service. Several students’ culminating research involved how to reach out and make connections with diverse communities who have values that are largely at odds with the prevailing environmentalist worldview.
Weisberg read a poem, “The Spirit of the Practice” by Robert Aitken, from the book Zen Master Raven (2002):
The Spirit of the Practice
Relaxing with the others after zazen one evening, Owl asked,
“What is the spirit of the practice?”
Raven said, “Inquiry.”
Owl cocked his head and asked.
“What do I inquire about?”
Raven said, “Good start.”
Lindsay Walker beams big. Photo by Jessica Haag.
Liza Dadiomov shows off a pile of degrees and certificates. Photo by Jessica Haag.
For the two days before Thursday’s celebratory and peaceful ceremony, the graduates’ families trickled in to the Environmental Learning Center from all across the country, just in time to witness the first springtime cracking of Ribes leaf buds and fat, rusty-breasted robins brightening the campus forest. These days were filled with watching the “Capstones”, the exploration and presentation of “a topic that has intrigued [the students] throughout their graduate school experience, connecting their experiences within environmental education, natural history, sense of place and the future of education” (quoted from ncascades.org). All of the capstones were a balanced combination of lecture and discussion, projected visuals, and interactive audience participation. All showcased the diverse directions to which a degree in environmental education can lead. And like any good scientific or artistic endeavor, in the spirit of a raven-inspired inquiry, all encouraged more questions than definitive answers.
A list of Cohort 12 Capstone Presentations, in order of appearance:
“Motley Crews and Odd Couples: Unconventional Partnerships in Environmental Education” by Cait McHugh
“Greening the Bluegrass: What International Development Can Teach Us About Environmental Education in the South” by Kim Hall
“Learning to Listen: Using Value-Based Messaging to Reframe Environmentalism” by Sahara Suval
“A Sound Sense of Place: Fining Home in the Salish Sea” by Andrea Reiter
“Down to Earth: The Environmental Education of a Recovering Space Cadet” by Lindsay Walker
“Is Wildness the Preservation of the World?” by Hillary Schwirtlich
“Peeling the Educational Onion: The Environment is in Here Somewhere” by Liza Dadiomov
“In the Shadow of Sourdough: Stories of Place and Reflection” by Ryan Weisberg
The capstones reflected the interdisciplinary nature of their education. Through this graduate program, students earn a Masters in Education, as well as a Certificate in Leadership and Nonprofit Administration and a Northwest Naturalist Certification. A traditional cap ‘n’ gown ceremony was held at WWU on Saturday.
Cohort 12, triumphant! The audience (the other half are not pictured) applauds them, looking forward to supporting them further in making their mark within the world. (This graduation was brought to you by….Organic Tea!) Photo by Jessica Haag.
So what’s next? Saul Weisberg assured all the parents in the audience that jobs, and good ones at that, indeed exist in the environmental education field. The graduates will be putting their new leadership and teaching skills to work everywhere from India to Colorado’s Rocky Mountains to the depths of the Salish Sea. Some are already working at local non-profit organizations, including the American Alpine Institute and the Skagit Conservation District, while others are moving to various corners of the country to pursue their educational passions.
Congratulations C12! Go do what you love, with the mountains and the ravens cheering you on.
Cohort 12 graduates from Western Washington University, showing off their stylish footwear and admiration for beloved professor Dr. John Miles. Photo by Gabby Suval.
Leading photo: Cohort 12, smiles of success. From L to R: Kim Hall, Sahara Suval, Hillary Schwirtlich, Liza Dadiomov, Cait McHugh, Ryan Weisberg, Andrea Reiter, Lindsay Walker. Photo by Jessica Haag.
Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She sends out a hearty thank you to C12 for paving the way and looks forward to being in their shoes in one short year, writing a bevy of blog posts in the meantime.