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Bringing the wild things back to campus

Public Health student Hanna Stutzman helps establish new native plantings at The College of New Jersey.
Nathaniel Johnson
The College of New Jersey
Public Health student Hanna Stutzman helps establish new native plantings at The College of New Jersey.

Gray and windy weather didn't stop students at The College of New Jersey from showing up for planting day. They wore UGG slippers and white sneakers --not the best footwear to stomp around in the dirt, but they pressed on, clearing weeds and then planting 70 native plants. They were laughing and asking for help, many of them hadn't gardened before.

It's called "rewilding." Bit by bit, manicured lawns and shrubs are making way for native plants and pollinators on some of the nation's college campuses.

"I think this generation is very interested in climate change and solutions, right?" says Kathleen Weber, a professor of journalism and professional writing at the college.

"They don't want to hear the doom and gloom, but they want to say, okay, what can we do to live in a better world? So that's what we're trying to do."

Samantha Romito is surrounded by classmates as she listens to instructions. Samantha's one of the students in the white sneakers. She's an early childhood special ed and psychology major who wanted to get involved in this project after hearing a guest speaker. "So we actually sat in on a talk about the importance of native plants and how much our environment is suffering due to overpopulation and the amount of industrialization going on," Romito says. "So native plants rebuild and bring native animals back as well as just bump up the environment."

It's been a long time coming. Professor Miriam Shakow started teaching about climate change and biodiversity early in her tenure at The College of New Jersey. She is now fifteen years in. She read a book that haunted her and she knew she wanted to arm her students for an uncertain climate future.

"I just realized it was so important that students both know about, and know how to address climate change and equally important, the real sharp decline in biodiversity around the world," Shakow says.

As part of Shakow's class, students teamed up to lead projects that tackled a climate or environmental problem. Saving bees and other pollinators were always high on the list because the loss of biodiversity is a huge problem and as Shakow says, "It's as significant as climate change."

TCNJ students participate in a native planting day on the New Jersey Campus.
Nathaniel Johnson / The College of New Jersey
The College of New Jersey
TCNJ students participate in a native planting day on the New Jersey Campus.

The students set about creating pollinator habitats on the traditionally maintained campus grounds. They worked with some of the college's grounds staff to get plots to plant their gardens, but the students agreed they would be responsible for the upkeep.

Sophomore Logan Fenton is one of Shakow's students. Today he's responsible for the wheelbarrow and is spending a lot of time weeding. He learned about organizations phasing out the herbicide Roundup and replacing it with organic land management. "Native plants are a better option. I don't like the idea of a cookie cutter campus," says Fenton.

Many colleges want manicured lawns, hedges, and areas that are covered in mulch. To make upkeep easier, groundskeepers use pesticides and herbicides to keep weeds away.

A campus trend that's spreading

For help in developing its pilot program, TCNJ turned to Re:wild Your Campus, a national organization that "helps campuses become climate resilient, biodiverse spaces." Re:wild offers training and workshops. They connect colleges and universities with experts who can help develop and implement programs. Re:wild has initiated 10 organic pilot programs across the country, including at UC Berkeley and Grinnell College in Iowa.

Thanks to an anonymous gift, plans at TCNJ include planting a meadow, a pilot lawn program to be managed organically, and a test plot of native and edible plants that staff and students can manage using organic practices. Ideas are bubbling up all over campus as more students and faculty get involved.

As the students take off their gardening gloves and put down their tools, Shakow reflects on the few hours of hard work. "For the students who are already thinking about planting native plants, it can be really rewarding for them and feeling that they can make a change little by little."

"I didn't know how I would like it going into it, but it was such a blast, " says student Romito.She says friends got so into the planting, they marked their plants. "We put rocks near the ones we planted, so we could come back and check out how they're doing."

Shakow looks at the plants, scattered on the patch of campus dirts and continues. "It's also really great as a professor to see students who are like, 'uh, I don't want to touch the dirt'. And then they get really excited about planting, so hopefully it'll light a little spark."

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