Stewards of Creation on Campus: Catholic Colleges Address Climate Change

In the year since Pope Francis released his encyclical on care for the environment, Laudato Si’, many Catholics have taken seriously the message to be better stewards of the earth.  Pope Francis encourages a connection between environmental concerns and issues of justice, noting that the issue of climate change involves hearing “both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (Laudato Si’, no. 49). Catholic colleges are addressing this dual call in many ways, incorporating the theme of environmental justice into classes, study abroad opportunities, and campus events.

Earlier this year, the University of St. Thomas (UST), began a three-part program incorporating environmental justice into a freshman symposium class, local service-learning efforts, and study abroad program in Costa Rica.  The projects were funded by the Global Solidarity Grant program, a collaboration between Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities and Catholic Relief Services, which awards grants to colleges and universities as a way of increasing awareness of global injustice and expanding student involvement in a faith that does justice. In the UST freshman symposium, Sister Damien Marie Savino, chair of the Environmental Studies program at UST, recently gave a guest lecture and led a discussion on Catholic Social Teaching, climate change, and sustainability efforts on campus and in the local community.

In addition to classroom learning and discussion, students served at Plant-It-Forward, a local community farm-share that partners with refugees to provide fresh local produce to the Houston area. Additionally, the UST sustainability committee hosted a sustainability dinner for the students in the seminar with a farm-to-table meal, along with a discussion on how to improve sustainability efforts on campus.

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UST students in Costa Rica

The final part of the expansive program was a service trip to Costa Rica where students worked with a small coffee-producing community. While serving in Costa Rica, students connected their knowledge of climate change from the seminar and experience in the local community to a global perspective. The students were moved by the relationships built across cultures that helped them shape their understanding of care for creation. They also reported that their lives were changed by meeting the people in Costa Rica and experiencing a culture that is so intertwined with the environment. One first-year student, Elena Dang, said she learned that “a huge difference in lifestyles between the USA and Costa Rica is the respect for Mother Nature. Children walk the streets, people sit outside, many restaurants have outside seating. There’s a sense of respect and veneration for nature because of how it provides so much for everyone.”

UST plans to continue this program so that service learning will flourish as a foundation of a UST education.

In another project funded by the Global Solidarity Grant program, students at Cabrini University organized a climate change simulation that focused on the effects of climate change on the poor and vulnerable, called “Tame the Change.” The simulation was led by students in a class called “Our Interdependent World,” a part of the Engagements with the Common Good core curriculum and taught by Jerome Zurek, in collaboration with the Wolfington Center, the center for community engagement and research at Cabrini, Catholic Relief Services ambassadors, the university communications department, and Cabrini Mission Corps. “Tame the Change” started as a topic study on how climate change is not only affecting the environment but also harming vulnerable people who lack the resources to safeguard themselves against the negative outcomes of environmental changes. The simulation modeled how climate change has a greater effect on the poor who rely on the land for their livelihood. In the simulation, students were put into pairs, where one was assigned to a developed country and one to a developing country, to represent the effect of daily decisions of those in developed countries on those living in developing countries.  At various stations, participants were presented with everyday choices they typically face on campus, involving food waste, plastic water bottle use, and energy use by electronics. Every choice that the person in the developed country made affected the other to indicate the interconnectedness of people across the globe. At the conclusion of the event, each of the over 200 participants were given reflection booklets based on passages from Laudato Si’ to help them reflect upon what they had learned during the event.

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Students at Cabrini University participate in “Tame the Change”

“Tame the Change” promoted solidarity with those who are strongly affected by climate change. As the class ended, students expanded the project to share it with more of the campus. To conclude the project, students built a website that enables other student groups to facilitate events similar to “Tame the Change.”

Tom Southard, the director of the Wolfington Center, noted that the event has resulted in a renewed commitment among Cabrini students and faculty members to combat climate change. Student groups are looking to facilitate more programs with an environmental focus and faculty members are shifting their research to include the sociology and science behind climate change.

Another example of encouraging students to thinking critically about care for the environment is Loyola University of Chicago’s third annual Climate Change Conference. The conference, hosted by the Institute of Environmental Sustainability, was titled “Global Climate Change: Challenges and Economic Solutions,” and focused on the effects of climate change on the global economy. During the conference, students in the Dance Theatre and University Chorale performed Earth Song, a song composed by Frank Ticheli, to highlight the connection between human actions and the environment. The performance reflected on and celebrated climate change initiatives, bringing the conversation into the realm of the arts. The students aimed to convey meaning through art, as a language that can be understood on multiple levels. Emily Miller, a first-year student in the University Chorale, commented that she hoped the performance would “appeal to the emotions of those who attend” the conference. A video of the performance is available on the conference website. This interdisciplinary approach to the issue of climate change enables Loyola University to engage students, faculty, and staff in a dialogue to effect change.

Through the classroom, student programs, and university events, Catholic universities are addressing the environmental crisis in a variety of creative projects. These colleges and universities embody Pope Francis’s call to care for our common home as stewards of creation, hearing both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.

Camilla MacKenzie is an undergraduate student at The Catholic University of America and the Peace and Justice Intern at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

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