December 2019

Excerpted with permission from The College of St. Scholastica. View original article.

St. Scholastica students presenting research

The Benedictine Sisters have always made sure that The College of St. Scholastica is a community of good stewardship, promoting the wise use of resources.

Today that bedrock value is finding new expression through a three-year initiative called the Sustainability TREE, which stands for Teaching Responsibility and Educating for Engagement. The goal is to help the College become a regional hub for educating future leaders who are prepared to advocate for sustainable practices.

"We intend not just to educate but also to change the behaviors and cultural norms of students and other members of the St. Scholastica community," said Dr. Aileen Beard, professor of chemistry and dean of the School of Sciences. "The TREE initiative is designed to subtly change our curriculum and to provide professional development resources to faculty to understand how to do that, in such a way that every student is not just exposed to issues of sustainability but is moved to some action. They will get this in all different disciplines."

In fall 2018, the College began an academic major and minor in Sustainability Studies and the Environment. While the major is attracting a core group of committed students who seek in-depth knowledge, the College wants the Sustainability TREE project to touch all undergraduates.

Student research and independent projects are a key component.

"As students learn from their peers, the faculty and staff, and community representatives," Beard said, "they will develop the leadership skills and subject knowledge needed to effect meaningful change after they graduate."

Beard said she thinks it's actually fairly easy to incorporate consideration of sustainability into majors across the College.

"Look at nursing. Health care equity — is that a sustainability issue? Well, absolutely! Or look at economics, and business policies, and things like food deserts. All of that fits under that big sustainability umbrella, because if we can address food deserts we can also address economic mobility. We're going to address health issues. And ultimately, people will be in better shape, and if people are in better shape the Earth is going to be in better shape."

The initiative is launching amid separate activities about sustainability. In recent years the Alworth Peace and Justice Series featured six speakers who discussed sustainable living from multiple perspectives, and the Oreck Alpern Interreligious Forum offered yearlong programming on the theme of Harmony: Art, Environmental Justice, Community, and the Power of Art. A planned Junior Leadership Certificate Program for students will have a specific strand focusing on sustainability. The student club CSS Earth Action promotes sustainable living both on campus and in the wider community. Learn more at

Funded in part by a grant of $425,000 from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies, Beard sees the Sustainability TREE project as mission-critical for the College. "This is emblematic of who we are. It's part of our heritage, our Benedictine values, part of our Catholic values. Pope Francis has actually defined caring for the Earth as a moral imperative."

Beyond the fit with St. Scholastica's values, "this is a perfect location for this kind of initiative," Beard said. "In northern Minnesota we've got Lake Superior, the Boundary Waters, we have clean water we want to keep clean ... (There are many) indigenous people who are a lot further along on these processes than we are, who we can learn from ... This isn't a political thing. It's not about mining or no mining, any of that. This is about making sure our practices allow for the Earth to be sustained, and for human life to be sustained. The reality is that the Earth is going to survive us; the question is, will we survive us?"

Not only the data, but the stories

Ryan Ihrke is the College's new facilitator and instructor in sustainability. He arrived in March, with a background in sustainability work in higher education and with community and faith groups.

"Being on a Benedictine campus feels comfortable," he said. His relationship with several Catholic Sisters was important to the development of his awareness of good stewardship. He attended Loyola High School in Mankato, MN, and got to know the School Sisters of Notre Dame there. After graduation he worked on a farm and retreat center they have in western Minnesota. Later he did work with the Sisters of Mercy at a similar center in Vermont.

"Being around people who are making efforts to integrate sustainability into the Catholic tradition, that was exciting to be a part of ... How passionate they are, how much they've contributed to the world and made the communities I've been a part of a better place. They do a really good job of identifying a spot and a direction to go, and meeting the needs of the community. Also, pushing each other and all of us to live a true and pure life in line with values and beliefs we hold together. Having that community piece is so important. I hope that's something I can foster here, as a staff and faculty member."

Ihrke offers professional development training for faculty on how to integrate sustainability into their curricula. He has started a Sustainability Advisory Council made up of students, faculty, staff, Sisters and people from the community. Efforts with students will include internships in the community, getting students real-world experience working with local nonprofits or businesses that want to be more sustainable, and research projects and applied efforts such as waste reduction or public awareness campaigns. He facilitated a fall leadership development retreat at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center.

"When you look at these issues, they have many facets. We need to understand the data, the science of what's going on, but we also need to understand the stories of people's lives. The more we can understand each other, and integrate support of one another into our classes and our life together as a learning community, the further along toward true sustainability we'll be."

He's encouraged. "We are doing a lot of positive things already. Can we do better, and do we need to do better? Yeah. But I don't want to discount who we are as an institution, and the people who have been doing great things."

In addition, alumni have formed an affinity group, CSS Alumni for Sustainability, that strives to improve the environmental practices and sustainability of the College. The group hopes to set the College on track to achieve energy from 100 percent renewable resources as soon as possible, achieve zero waste output from all services on campus, and to educate all St. Scholastica students about the importance of sustainability.