Twelve SUNY Oneonta students got hands-on experience with wetlands restoration during a service-learning trip in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward last week.
Working with a nonprofit organization called Common Ground Relief, the students worked to help restore and preserve Louisiana’s disappearing coastal wetlands by planting hardy, fast-growing native plants and removing invasive species in coastal areas imperiled by hurricanes, development and engineering projects that have eroded land and endangered wildlife.
Using recycled Christmas trees and Tallow trees, the team built berms to help prevent erosion and stabilize newly planted vegetation, worked in a native tree nursery, visited Common Ground’s Outdoor Learning Center, helped out with various projects at Docville Farm and learned about cultural complexities, the role of physical landscapes and environmental issues in the region.
The New Orleans trip is a component of Disaster Geographies, a course taught by Associate Professor Wendy Lascell, who accompanied the students, along with Linda Drake, executive director of the college’s Center for Social Responsibility and Community. Lascell has taken several groups of students to New Orleans, including Class of 2020 alumna Amy Shultis, who now works for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. Shultis met up with students while they were in town.
Working in the wetlands and seeing in real life all of the places discussed in class was surreal, students said.
“My favorite part about the service trip to New Orleans was having the opportunity to see all the diverse and flourishing plants and animals that reside in the bayou,” said Carlotta Batchelder, of Gansevoort, NY. “Being able to experience the sheer abundance and beauty of the ecosystem I am helping to protect was incredible. Something impactful about the trip was the sense of community and hospitality in New Orleans. Every local I met on the trip welcomed the group and I with open arms and were extremely appreciative of the volunteer work we were doing.”
Service-learning trips such as this one give students an invaluable experience for both academic and personal growth, Lascell said. They are engaged in service, immersed in an unfamiliar culture, and confronted with real-world problems that don't have easy solutions.
In conjunction with the service activities, students immersed themselves in New Orleans culture. They saw the Mississippi River and spent time in the French Quarter, heard live jazz and tried popular Cajun cuisine such as alligator, crawfish, raccoon, hog and shrimp. The students returned to New York with photographs to show and stories to tell.
“I don’t know if I can pick one moment that was my favorite part because we did so many amazing things in a matter of 7 days,” said Isabel Vicole, of Nanuet, NY. “However, I think the biggest takeaway was a sense of belonging in my major and what I wanted to do with my life. This trip reinforced the idea that I love to work with the earth, and the other people who also enjoy it are just a plus. As for my fellow classmates, we knew we had to become a team to make this work, which is exactly what we did and became genuine friends over a short amount of time.”