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Students at the Middlebury School in China accompanied middle schoolers into wetlands in Heqing in China’s Yunnan Province to participate in hands-on explorations related to wildlife and water quality.

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New Middlebury Program Pairs Students Abroad with Local Organizations to Address Sustainability Challenges

December 3, 2015

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – A new program will create opportunities for students at several of the Middlebury C.V. Starr Schools Abroad to serve as interns on environmental initiatives in the countries where they are studying. Those students who become passionate about their projects may also continue working with their in-country partners once they return to Middlebury and other campuses in the U.S. 

“This is an exciting new dimension to our study abroad programs,” said Jeff Cason, dean of international programs. “This opens up a whole new aspect of international study for our students.”

Middlebury Global Partnerships in Sustainability (MGPS) will help students and faculty at Middlebury Schools Abroad to partner with local organizations to address long-term sustainability challenges through coursework, projects, and internships. Student interns will also have a chance to accelerate their mastery of the languages they are studying. The program began in October at the Middlebury Schools Abroad sites in Kunming, China, and Tokyo, Japan, and will begin in December in Valparaiso, Chile. Middlebury plans to expand to more sites in the future. 

The initiative is a collaboration between several entities at Middlebury – Environmental Affairs, the Office of Sustainability Integration, and the Schools Abroad. A gift from a family of donors has enabled Middlebury to launch the MGPS. “We have long envisioned expanding Middlebury’s global sustainability impact and immersive learning experiences for students in collaboration with our Schools Abroad and in-country partners” said Nan Jenks-Jay, dean of environmental affairs. “This generous gift enables us to take a first step in leveraging Middlebury’s strengths for greater outcomes.”

Students at the Middlebury School in China visited a farm in Lijiang in China’s Yunnan Province to explore future internship opportunities.

Middlebury President Laurie Patton said MGPS “epitomizes Middlebury’s leadership role in environment and higher education.” She added that for students who become passionate about these projects, Middlebury will also offer the opportunity — in the form of grants, internships, and thesis research — to continue working with in-country partners after their study abroad experience. Patton also pointed to the program as part of an effort to address sustainability issues throughout the Middlebury network.

In China, the Middlebury School in Kunming and its host Yunnan University are working with The Nature Conservancy China and Vermont’s Shelburne Farms to strengthen the conservancy’s capacity to teach environmental education in communities near Laojunshan National Park. The partnership program is working directly with teams of conservationists in the field and immersing students in China’s landmark species and wetland protection efforts in the Yunnan Province.

Jack Byrne, director of sustainability integration at Middlebury, recently traveled to China to meet with teachers, farmers, park rangers, and others who may work with the student interns. Accompanying Byrne on the study tour were 10 students from the School Abroad sites in Kunming and Hangzhou, staff from the School in Kunming, and a sustainability educator from Shelburne Farms in Vermont.

Byrne said Middlebury hopes to build long-term partnerships so that sustainability projects can progress efficiently as students transition in and out of the program. When student interns in the new program return to their respective campuses, they will brief the next group on the progress of their current projects. The incoming students will pick up where the last group left off.

“Our goal is for the students to make a progressive contribution rather than repeating what’s been done already,” said Byrne. “In the process, they will also deepen their language skills and cultural knowledge.”

“This trip gave me an interesting perspective on the relationship between the environment and the culture in the rural parts of northwest Yunnan,” said Will Mason, a Washington and Lee junior studying at the Middlebury School in Kunming. “This is the kind of perspective you can’t get from a book or a movie.”

In Japan, the Middlebury School at International Christian University is working with Tottori University of Environmental Studies and the town of Chizu to create sustainable economic opportunities to attract young people to return to rural communities, which have been depopulated and are now comprised predominantly of elderly citizens.

A hike during their recent study tour gave students at the Middlebury School in China excellent views of the Laojun Mountains.

“The project is effective because the students’ use of language is immediate, with no time to check for grammar or intonation,” said Sanae Eda, associate professor and director of the Middlebury School in Japan. “The students are also united in their contribution towards creating a sustainable eco-system.”

In Chile, the Middlebury School is working with its partner universities, Southern Nature, and the Wildlife Conservation Society to learn about Patagonia’s Karukinka Natural Park, and how best to develop ecotourism and environmental education programs there.

Patton noted the MGPS’s mutual benefits. “By providing the opportunity to engage in meaningful work with local organizations, these partnerships benefit students attending Middlebury Schools Abroad,” said Patton. “And by channeling intellectual and human capital toward regional sustainability challenges, the partnerships benefit the host countries themselves.”