Catawba College’s Center for the Environment has put students to work for the earth for 20 years

Joel Schlaudt (right) leads Catawba students using bikes from Catawba’s Share-a-Bike program

Catawba College, like all schools in the Sullivan Foundation network, sees service not just an accompaniment to education but a vital part of it. Those roots run deep in this Salisbury, North Carolina liberal arts haven, and a sharp focus on environmental issues has long been a hallmark of Catawba’s particular brand of service.

The centerpiece of the college’s environmental service programs is its Center for the Environment, which has put students on the front lines of environmental outreach in the Piedmont region of North Carolina now for two full decades. Structuring itself as a model of environmental stewardship and sustainability, the center’s influence in the region can be found in everything from helping to establish the Salisbury Greenway to fostering land conservation, from promoting clean air to advancing solar power.

“The vision that drives this program is that service and commitment to environmental stewardship are vital to the complete education of our future leaders,” says Dr. John Wear, executive director of the center. “The program fosters the skills our students will need to create positive change in their present and future communities.”

Building stewards of the earth

Environmental Steward Seth Stephens helps National Environmental Summit high school students set up a turtle trap in Lake Baranski on campus

The center’s impact on students is often profound in how it challenges them not just to learn, but to take action. Those experiences, in turn, shape students into better leaders and environmental citizens. The Environmental Stewards Program, for example, offers eligible students the chance to become involved in campus sustainability projects.

Dan Couchenour, a 2014 Catawba graduate, describes his participation in the program as “life-changing.” He initiated a project to conserve water in the residence halls in order to save money to purchase bicycles for the campus, which students check out much like they check out a library book.

Joel Schlaudt, a Catawba junior, assumed the leadership for the water conservation/Share-a-Bike program in 2015.  Deeply committed to environmental projects, he also started a beekeeping program in the campus’s own Stanback Ecological Preserve and currently co-leads a campus educational effort on recycling.

Schlaudt notes that his skills in leadership, communication, and collaboration have improved significantly as a result of the Environmental Stewards Program.

“I have learned especially how to communicate my ideas and how to get a project to fruition,” he says. “When you get more people involved, more ideas come out of it and there’s a higher possibility of things getting accomplished,” he says.

Preparing future generations

John Wear speaks to National Environmental Summit students

The Center for the Environment doesn’t limit its efforts to Catawba students. It also reaches students in elementary through high school.

Its National Environmental Summit brings motivated students from across the country to the Catawba campus each July to explore the skills and knowledge they will need to become environmental leaders in their schools and their communities.

Wear got the idea for the summit several years ago when he noticed a pattern among students.

“I had more and more students walking into my office who were interested in environmental stewardship but didn’t necessarily want it as a career,” he says.

That prompted him to join forces with Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado and eventually with Environmental Working Group of Washington, D.C., to establish the summit, which helps students hone their leadership and collaboration skills as well as challenging them to design and implement a project that addresses an environmental concern.

Makayla Utt of North Stokes High School in Danbury, North Carolina found in the summit a great learning experience.

“It was seriously one of the greatest things I’ve done thus far in my life,” she says. “I’m more conscious now about the decisions my family makes, and I’m trying to get my family to start recycling and things like this. The summit just showed me that it’s important to care about the earth.”

Madison Lemoine, a two-year attendee from Tequesta, Florida, felt that environmental stewardship was important for years, but the summit sparked something new in her.  “I’ve always tried to help,” she said, “but the summit started a passion in me.”

No time to sit and be idle

MacKenzie Kuhns of China Grove Middle School documents the number of minutes parents idle their cars when picking up their children. The No Idling program was designed by Center for the Environment staff

The center’s Campaign for Clean Air designed a six-week program that put a sharp focus on a problem young students could attempt to solve. China Grove Middle School’s “No Idling” pilot program offered them an opportunity to learn about the hazards of air pollution as well as the chance to do something about it.

Students monitored the length of time parents idled their vehicles when they dropped off their children in the mornings and picked them up in the afternoons. Rowan County, North Carolina, where the school is located, already has poor air quality. The students made an effort to educate their own parents on the environmental dangers of idling.

Michaela Teeter, an eighth grader, noticed that educating others can really make an impact.

“We made such a big difference,” she says.

After the students’ media blitz, only two cars idled more than four minutes during the entire measurement period, and nearly all the rest were well under two minutes. “That is a huge reduction from the multiple ones idling 28, 30, even 42 minutes that we saw before,” says Shelia Armstrong, air quality outreach coordinator for the Center for the Environment.

Ryan Turney, another eighth grader at China Grove, was honored to be part of the project.

“It was so cool how we could really make a difference in our community,” he says.

Turning schools green

The NC Green Schools program is the center’s latest effort to reach out to the community. It promotes sustainability in the state’s schools from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

The program helps teachers connect and share ideas, offers resources and tools to help them start green initiatives and recognizes schools that meet specified goals. Wear calls the program “a good fit” for the Center.

“It’s a need we can fill, “he says, “and it’s also a value-added educational opportunity for our students. They can work as interns and engage in the program in other ways, helping to influence younger children to become good stewards of the environment.”

Service to last a lifetime

Nearly every endeavor the Center for the Environment undertakes has the potential to involve students in service projects.

“Whether we are helping the campus community or the community at large,” Wear says, “we are creating opportunities for our students.”

“Mentoring students—giving them opportunities to work on environmental issues, to increase their knowledge and refine their leadership skills—is incredibly important,” he adds.  “It establishes a pattern of service they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.”

Catawba College and its Center for the Environment couldn’t be better representatives of the Sullivan ideal of service before self, and their efforts on behalf of the environment will continue to reap rewards for generations as students continue to grow and develop.


This article was adapted from an article by Juanita Teschner, director of communications for Catawba College’s Center for the Environment.

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