| by Sierra Abukins

News Stories

Impact corps
Middlebury undergraduate and graduate students created a digital interpretive guide for Big Sur Land Trust through Middlebury Social Impact Corps 2023.

The land has many stories to tell.

A particular two-mile path across rolling oak woodlands between the coast and Monterey’s agricultural region has layers of natural, ecological, and cultural histories that aren’t obvious to hikers.

Last summer, a group of Middlebury students took on the challenge of bringing those stories to life by creating a digital interpretive guide aimed at helping the public explore those rich histories. As members of the Middlebury Social Impact Corps, the students—both undergraduate and graduate—completed the project in partnership with local nonprofit Big Sur Land Trust.

“There’s never just one story of an area,” said Josh Hulbert ’24, an environmental studies/earth and climate sciences joint major from Vancouver, Washington, who worked on the project. “As you look at a piece of land, there’s so much more than one lens, one story. It’s incredible to see how many different things have influenced an area.”


The students focused their work on the land trust’s Marks Ranch, an 816-acre area adjacent to Toro Park in Salinas. Their days were filled with hiking the property while observing and photographing its natural and built features. Back in town, they immersed themselves in the Monterey Public Library’s California History Room, where history librarian, Andres Garza, provided records and information about the indigenous populations who lived in the area before Spanish colonization. They also visited area museums, including the Custom House and the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, which deepened their understanding of the region.

The final product of their work is a story map, created with GIS software, which will be available for visitors and anyone else interested in learning more about the area later this year.

“Having something like this new guide is not only going to help our hike leaders tell the story of these lands, but will also help self-guided hikers understand the area more fully, including people who are not able to hike or are outside the area,” said Jenny Jacox, engagement lead for Big Sur Land Trust.

The nonprofit’s mission is to inspire love of land across generations, conserve unique Monterey County landscapes, and provide access to outdoor experiences for all. “This project hit all three of those,” said Jacox. “What we’re really all about is connecting people to the lands we all love and helping people find their own connections.”

Those connections are essential to the cohort-based program, which bridges Middlebury College and the Middlebury Institute for projects that are created in partnership with local, community-based organizations. 

“Something I learn about in my classes at the Institute is using what’s available and connecting different organizations to get things done,” said Marion Ayer, who is completing his joint MPA/MA in International Policy and Development. Ayer said he learned a lot about community engagement by observing Big Sur Land Trust’s approach.

“At its core, liberal arts is about exposure to multiple perspectives and understanding more than your point of view, and for a professional graduate school, you’re looking outward,“ said Institute professor and faculty director for the program Dr. Netta Avineri. “It’s that combination of inward and outward work and broadening what counts as knowledge and expertise—that’s what builds toward social change.”

One challenge for students was incorporating the ecological history, how the indigenous people lived on the land, and also the story of the Marks family who founded the chicken ranch. 

It’s that combination of inward and outward work and broadening what counts as knowledge and expertise—that’s what builds toward social change.
— Dr. Netta Avineri, faculty director for Middlebury Social Impact Corps

“A stereotype of Monterey is that it’s highly white,” said Dina Bazou ’25, an environmental studies/psychology joint major. “There are a lot of communities that are overshadowed and not seen. It’s been pretty cool how we’ve been looking at the indigenous history of the area and seeing the change of the ecology between the coastal areas and into the valley and agricultural communities which are very different from the coastal areas.”

“I want to help people who don’t have access to green spaces to have access,” said Diana Cortez Carlos ’24, an environmental and architectural studies major. “We’re trying to create a genuine connection between the community and their environment. Some people see nature as the scary and the unknown and some people love it. I want everyone to have access to create a relationship like that.”

As was the goal, the partnership between students and the land trust benefited both. 

“I can’t say enough for service learning,” said Jacox. “This kind of project helps us engage young people when they might not otherwise be able to engage because they are so busy, working jobs and working hard as students. Sometimes they don’t have time to volunteer and this lets us engage young adults in a way that is powerful for them and for us.”

Middlebury Social Impact Corps is housed at the Elizabeth Hackett Robinson ‘84 Innovation Hub and received funding for the first time this year from the Kathryn Wasserman Davis Collaborative in Conflict Transformation.