A Sustainability Service Corps Pilot

January 19, 2012

By Randall Solomon
Sustainable Jersey

College Students’ Need for Experience Meets Green Teams’ Need for Staff

This fall, eighteen college students crowded shoulder to shoulder with Mayor Donnelly and members of the Green Team and Environmental Advisory Committee in the eclectic Jersey Made store in Mill Race Village in Mount Holly.

The students were given a pep talk before going door to door to talk to residents. The objective was to learn about community members’ attitudes and preferences for shopping local versus at the big box stores and elsewhere. The data collected provided the necessary information to help develop a planned Buy Local Campaign in town to promote the local stores.

Top: Students ready to go door to door in Mount Holly
Bottom: Students survey residents for Buy Local Program in Mount Holly

Just one month before, nineteen energetic students got down and dirty. They built two rain gardens in Mount Holly. The students dug a large hole and planted it with deep-rooted native plants and grasses to soak up rainwater. In this case, the garden will capture and filter water runoff from a huge parking lot, preventing it from entering the nearby creek. A rain garden can soak up to 30% more water than a traditional lawn. This will help protect the quality of water downstream by preventing runoff from getting to the creek and storm drains.

Perfect Green Swap

It was a perfect green swap. Mount Holly needed staff to get a long list of environmental projects started and the college students needed hands-on work experience.

Thanks to a grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Sustainable Jersey partnered with The College of New Jersey’s (TCNJ) Bonner Center for Civic and Community Engagement to form a team of Bonner/Sustainable Jersey scholars that help municipalities to achieve Sustainable Jersey actions. Towns were selected through a competitive application process. Bonner Fellows also help to mobilize TCNJ freshmen students engaged in Community Engaged Learning (CEL) to work with towns participating in the Sustainable Jersey program.

Students working on the Shinn Cabin Rain Garden

By helping to plan and execute green projects throughout the year, the Bonner Scholars are aiding officials from four municipalities—Mount Holly, Trenton, the City of Burlington, and Green Brook—in their goal of attaining the 150 points necessary to get Sustainable Jersey’s bronze level of certification by October of 2012.

This partnership extends the practice of student community engaged learning with service beyond typical non-profit community partners to local governments. The partnership has been beneficial all around, according to Heather Camp, senior program director at the Bonner Center. “The partnership helps us to connect to different communities throughout New Jersey in a meaningful, long-term way. What I think makes the Bonner Center a good partner for the project is that we have the opportunity to mobilize a greater number of students to help communities meet their Sustainable Jersey needs,” Camp said.

This arrangement is useful for towns. Dan Rita of the four-person Mount Holly Green Team said, “Mount Holly is really struggling right now. It has been incredibly helpful to have the students organize and get the projects off the ground.” Each project gave Mount Holly 10 points for a total of 20 points toward Sustainable Jersey certification, moving their total from 90 to 110 points.

Students complete work on the Burlington County Jail Rain Garden

The students get a lot out of the experience as well. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), new college graduates who had participated in internships did far better in the job market than their classmates who did not have that experience. The students gain experience, develop skills, make connections, strengthen their resumes, learn about environmental fields, and are able to assess their interests and abilities. In Mount Holly, Dan Rita of the Green Team makes sure that the students get a full experience.

This spring, the students plan to help Mount Holly install community gardens. The other towns participating in the partnership have some worthwhile projects in the pipeline with the students as well. Stay tuned for updates on the students work with the Green Fair in the City of Burlington, an anti-idling campaign in Green Brook, and asset mapping projects in Trenton.

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All photos by Randi Rothmel