Thursday, February 10, 2011

Girls just wanna have fun... at Chatham University?

I had the pleasure of wrapping up my week long Road Trip O' Fun on Tuesday with a visit to Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who happen to be the proud parents of an bouncing baby Master of Arts in Food Studies program.

I wasn't really sure what to expect. For one, this is their first year doing the program, and I was a little wary of a brand new enterprise. Second, I had never heard of Chatham University before, and it was only by the grace of Google that I knew about them at all... and don't they (meaning just about everyone who has given me advice about grad school) say that going to a well-recognized school opens doors? Third, Chatham college (the undergraduate portion) is a girls-only school, which - let's be honest - weirds me out a tad. So, when I arrived at Chatham, I was pretty sure it was not what I wanted.

I was first disarmed by the beauty of the campus. I mean, it's really beautiful. Really. I say this having attended Indiana University, which regularly wins accolades for its limestone-encrusted charm. Chatham's Shadyside Campus is small, but chock full of historic buildings and grand old houses. Also, it had been snowing all night, turning all the hills and architecture into some kind of postcard-perfect wintry learning paradise.

Then I started my full slate of morning meetings with Michael May, the Director of Graduate Studies; Alice Julier, the Food Studies Program Director; and several of the students. These chats had the effect of quickly stripping me of any remaining uncertainty. For example, as Alice explained, this program was created with food systems and social justice in mind. It's almost as if they have people interested in advocacy (*ahem*) in mind. Oh, wait..... they do.

Just because I had never heard of Chatham doesn't mean they aren't unknown, especially in the sustainability world. Their innovative approach to education and their ideas for the future (more on that below) are gathering a lot of attention and momentum in the very areas I hope to penetrate one day.

And even if they are a new program, most of the students there view that as a plus. They have the opportunity to help shape the program, and the flexibility to do almost anything they want, said such helpful folks as Amanda, Teresa, Jerallyn and Arielle. Plus, as they jovially pointed out, they are the guinea pigs in this situation. By the time I would get there, a lot of the kinks would already be worked out.

As a brand new program, Chatham is building the MA from the ground up - literally, as it turns out. I speak of the Eden Hall Farm Campus, which is about 45 minutes from the main campus. It is to be the site of their pioneering sustainable campus, and the home base for the new School of Sustainability and the Environment. They will be breaking ground this spring and should finish construction by Fall 2012 - which happens to be when I would start. Oh, serendipity!

The Eden Hall Campus Master Plan has a lot of great information about the future of Chatham's sustainability initiative, including the MA in Food Studies - it gives details about what the campus will look like, the phases of construction and development, and their goals for academic excellence, community building, and proper stewardship of the environment. Their vision summarizes it up pretty well:
As a living and learning community, Eden Hall Campus will encourage students and faculty to immerse themselves in a setting that promotes the study and advancement of sustainable development based on restorative principles. This is a dynamic, exciting place—a living laboratory in which to explore fundamentally different approaches to how we manage resources, both physical and intellectual. It will inspire us to model development and behavior, changing the way we occupy the land, design buildings, interact with our communities, fuel our economies, and design systems for energy, waste, water, transportation, and food.
Chatham claims to be the first academic institution to design and build a campus that integrates sustainable design, academics, and community in this way - and as far as I can tell, they are. I haven't found a single other program with this kind of approach. As Alice explained to me, most other schools that offer some version of a Food Studies program, like Boston University (who I visited in October) or NYU, have just stuck it into their existing coursework, rather than build their coursework around the concept.

As a result, this makes Chatham look very attractive to someone like me, who is less interested in the cultural/historical context of food - done very well by BU and NYU - and more into the nitty-gritty, hands-on, experiential methods that Chatham is piloting. (Not that you can't study such things at those schools, but it's much harder.) When I asked Alice what they have that the above-mentioned, more established programs don't, she immediately responded, "A farm!" with a laugh. Meaning an actual physical place where students can put into practice what they learn in a classroom? But of course.

The farm isn't the only place where Chatham students are getting practical experience. There are also experiential classes in Culinary Arts - although that's hardly unheard of, and is even a requirement at NYU. But beyond even that, the Food Studies program here has already established relationships with restaurants, farmers markets, urban gardens, and non-profits in the Pittsburgh area - and students are required to do three credit hours of internships with them.

I could probably write for another hour about everything that excited me about Chatham, but instead I'm going to sign off here. This entry is already slightly (and by that I mean ridiculously) long.

Next time... breaking news on internships for the 2011 growing season!

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