A Sense of Place – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

A Sense of Place

The syllabus for Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Joel Helfrich’s “Sense of Place and Environmental Consciousness,” class opens with a quote from novelist Scott Russell Sanders, who wrote that we should all work to create a life that is “firmly grounded in household and community, in knowledge of place, in awareness of nature, and in contact with that source from which all things arise.”

“My hope is that students make some realizations about the role they play in the world, about the impact of their lifestyle choices and about the connections between their actions and the natural world,” says Helfrich.

“Sense of Place and Environmental Consciousness” challenges students to participate and chronicle their experiences with personal and practical environmentalism. Throughout the semester, students are encouraged to practice weekly exercises, including one week without texting and one week without meat, dairy or eggs, among others. Students use the Geneva area as a case study to discern how a culture inscribes itself on a landscape, altering the environment to create a sense of place.

When Helfrich gave out his first assignment – to go without a vehicle for one week – Harrison Schutzer ’15, a student in the Environmental Studies 110 course, found himself walking to class and errands.  Then he borrowed a bicycle and went further, faster. Using a bicycle to get from place to place reminded Schutzer of his time volunteering for Bikes for the World (BfW), the nation’s largest nonprofit bicycle reuse program. 

“The simple switch to a bike reminded me of how much of an impact a bike can really have on an individual,” says Schutzer. Based in the Washington, D.C. area, BfW collects used bicycles, parts and tools in the mid-Atlantic region and delivers them to community programs in developing countries.

As Schutzer pedaled his way across campus, he began thinking about access in a different way. “A bicycle can get someone someplace…like from poverty to self-sufficiency,” he says. BfW provides affordable transportation to laborers, teachers, students, farmers and small business owners, whether for access to employment, health care or education. Schutzer calculated that riding a bicycle for one week saved him about $11.65 in mileage, a savings in which he donated to BfW. 

“The donation will help offset the cost of shipping one bike overseas, but will also provide someone with the opportunity to lead a more productive life,” explains Schutzer.

Switching from four wheels to two has impacted Schutzer, too. He now experiences campus with a newfound “sense of place,” which is exactly what Helfrich had hoped.

 “Students who complete these weekly experiences with personal and practical environmentalism often had not considered the impact of their actions not only on the natural world but also on themselves,” explains Helfrich. “It is truly an effort to raise awareness and to become more awake; the title of the class is, after all, ‘Sense of Place and Environmental Consciousness.'”