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Walk Across California

Friday, May. 4, 2012

Many students go abroad or do immersion programs to break out of their normal scholastic routines at Santa Clara and to add worldly or community engagement to their college experience, but this summer, a group of 14 students will take part in an experience of a new kind—one that is a first at Santa Clara University. At the end of spring quarter, even before commencement takes place, these 14 students along with Associate Professor of Dance David J. Popalisky will set off on a 15-day walk across California.

Starting at Ocean Beach near San Francisco, students will walk all the way to Yosemite Valley, stopping in cities as different as Oakland and Tracy while staying with Miwak Indians as well as environmentally conscious citizens who are happy to open their doors for Santa Clara students. During the journey, students will learn from their interactions with both the diverse human populations they encounter and the natural environments they move through, but before leaving, students will research the historical, sociological, and environmental circumstances of the people and the places they will encounter. They will be knowledgeable, for instance, about Native American resource management practices as well as the influence of Europeans from the Gold Rush era.

While Popalisky maintains that sustainability concerns and an environmental focus will inform all choices related to the class, he believes students’ understanding of sustainability will be thoroughly enhanced through this experience because they will begin to discuss numerous environmental issues such as the drying up of wetlands and the return to environmentally friendly farms instead of big agribusiness. They will also be able to connect to the land by learning about local food growing processes, pesticide-free farms, and the process of gray-water reclamation.

The class originally developed as an idea Popalisky had after taking a sustainability workshop with Environmental Studies and Sciences Lecturer John Farnsworth, who directs the Penstemon Project for Sustainability Across the Curriculum. With this idea in mind and after listening to Sean Watts lecture about the great variety of ecological environments in California, Popalisky thought it would be an inventive and fascinating learning experience to literally walk through these environments.

Although the class developed as an opportunity to experience these unique ecological environments in California, it was also designed to cultivate students’ “sense of wonder” as they witness the state’s populations and environments and start a dialogue with community members, who include food justice activists, farm workers, teachers, and Native Americans. The course fulfills the Experiential Learning for Social Justice requirement for SCU’s New Core, and it also fulfills the Arts requirement because students will be asked to create some aesthetic interpretation and reflection of their journey, which could range from interpretive dances to drawings, photos, poems and music compositions.

Ultimately, though, Popalisky wants his students to tune into the space they are occupying. He has developed the term “witnessing” for his class to mean observing the environment but also being present within it. He encourages students to “witness” the peoples and places instead of just seeing them because “witnessing” will cause us to listen, to absorb other peoples’ realities, which transforms us and inspires action in the future. One of his major research questions is what sustains us as individuals—what brings us joy today and allows us to get through tough times. Essentially, this requires being in the present but also finding out where you come from and where you live now, and Popalisky is confident that this experience will truly allow students to seriously reflect on these important questions.

Popalisky extends his great thanks to the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education for awarding the class with a special projects grant to help limit student costs for the walk. He also wants to thank Andrea Brewster of the Drahman Center who helped him craft the syllabus to meet the Experiential Learning for Social Justice core curriculum requirement and also Phyllis Brown, Associate Provost of Undergraduate Studies, for providing financial support through the planning stages of this course. Finally, he would like to thank John Farnsworth, Sean Watts, and Renee Billingslea (Art) for inspiring him to make this project a reality.

By Aven Satre-Meloy, '13 Sustainability Intern -- Communications

Tags: Arts, Community Engagement, Education and Research, Program Highlights, Student Life



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