Reading, writing and road tripping
Rachel Alexander ’13
Major: politics-environmental studies
This semester I’m enjoying the opportunity to learn in a variety of places all over the Western United States as one of 21 students taking part in Whitman’s "Semester in the West" program, led by Phil Brick, Miles C. Moore professor of politics. We study the politics, writing and ecology of the American West while traveling all semester and working out of a converted horse trailer.
I learn by doing work. In the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, we spent a week collecting data on stream topography and aspen regeneration for Suzanne Fouty, a U.S. Forest Service hydrologist. In Utah’s Dixie National Forest, we gathered data showing the effects of cattle grazing on vegetation with ecologist Mary O’Brien. We learn from the scientists we work with about public lands management, cattle grazing and ecology. Our work helps these scientists develop public policy to better manage our public lands.
I learn in the field. Our conversation on water rights and water shortages in the West has been extensive: We rafted the Green River in Colorado to see Echo Park, where a dam was proposed in the 1950s, and we stood knee-deep in the mud of California’s Owens Lake while learning that Los Angeles pumped the lake dry almost a century ago to bring water to its growing population. Before this course is complete, we will speak to ranchers about wolf reintroduction, government officials about fire management and ordinary citizens about everything from renewable energy to running a ski company. We will meet with experts and residents on the front lines of issues — their passions and opinions serving as our textbooks for the semester.
I also learn from my fellow students. Writing assignments are shared after dark, with everyone together in a silent circle, a single headlamp illuminating the piece being read. I gain perspective, humility and wisdom from listening to my fellow "Westies" share their experiences, and I develop opinions during discussions on our eight-hour car rides or while stargazing on a moonless night in the desert. My experience is enhanced by the presence of every other person in the program, each of us bringing something to our traveling community of Whitties.