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Featured Stories - Fall 2020 | Fort Lewis College | Durango, CO

Fort Lewis College News/News/FLC Voices old/Fall 2020
Featured stories from FLC Voices Magazine Fall 2020 issue.

Graphic of a woman holding an umbrella flying through the air

“I believe that it’s our job to illuminate the world around us in order to help students become independent thinkers capable of solving the most pressing issues of our time.”

When I came to Fort Lewis College in the summer of 2018, I taught a course as part of my interview. To begin, I asked the students the same question I’ve asked all my students since I began teaching in 2007:

Why are you in college?

A young woman in the front row immediately raised her hand. I was certain she’d echo what all my previous students had said: “To make more money!”

But I was in for a surprise.

“To change the world!” she belted with conviction. For me, that was it. I was sold. I wanted to be a professor at Fort Lewis College.

This experience reflects my belief that it is not sufficient to merely study the world around us. For, as Albert Einstein pointed out, “No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.” Rather, “We must learn to see the world anew.”

We are here to change the world

As educators, I believe that it’s our job to illuminate the world around us in order to help students become independent thinkers capable of solving the most pressing issues of our time. To this end, we must lead our students not only in the classroom, but also, and perhaps most importantly, by way of example within our local communities.

At FLC, we share a common conviction in the value of experiential learning. Whether it’s exploring Disappointment Valley for artifacts with Dr. Jesse Tune or installing solar panels on the Navajo Nation with Dr. Becky Clausen and Dr. Laurie Williams, the FLC experience is defined by the work we do alongside our students. It is through this work that we come “to see the world anew.”

The pandemic has challenged our work at FLC by exposing the degree to which climate change, inequality, and racism impede our ability to lead thriving lives. As we began teaching online in March, I saw these barriers cut through my own classes. I watched my students of color struggle to keep up due to a lack of access to basic technology. I also found that minority students—who make up 57% of FLC’s student population—were more likely to write me with news of a loved one they’d lost to COVID-19. These anecdotes parallel national trends reflecting that minorities are nearly two times as likely to die from COVID-19 than people of predominately European ancestry.

Despite these barriers, our foundation in experiential learn¬ing has allowed us to successfully respond to the pandemic while continuing to evolve as an institution. Amidst an international crisis, we’ve improved the retention of our minority students by nearly 10 percentage points. We’ve also taken important steps toward diversifying our faculty and staff. And we’re addressing our own racist history head on through the FLC History Committee, which is composed of faculty, staff, and students.

In short, at FLC, the pandemic has revealed our high¬est calling: to eliminate the formidable distance between the minority-serving institution that we are, and the minority-serving institution that we strive to be.

Today, more than ever, I’m proud to work at Fort Lewis College. Like other institutions, we have a long way to go, but we are walking in the right direction, guided by our students, who continue to remind us that they are here to change the world.



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Illustration of people with a giant lightbulb that looks like a globe

Health & Hope

Three Public Health majors focus their talents and senior projects on how to not only integrate Native voices into public health messaging and the COVID response, but how to amplify those voices and eventually change an entire healthcare system.

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Where you belong, there you will SOAR - Skyler the Skyhawk

Thanks to supportive professors, peers, and programs, FLC students have all they need to ignite positive change before they even graduate and soar with confidence toward their future goals. For the debut of a new Amazon Prime show, The College Tour, these 10 students take viewers on a tour of Colorado’s campus in the sky, while sharing their experiences of FLC’s array of opportunities and connections. The potential? Turns out the sky isn’t the limit; it’s only the beginning.

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Graduate to Operate

FLC grads on the campaign trail

In an election year like no other, politics has been front-and center at FLC just as it has been around the country. Young people of all political persuasions have historically had low levels of electoral participation, but for Olivia Thomas (Political Science and Borders &Languages, ‘20) and Jessica Hayden (Political Science, ‘20), direct political engagement has been a central part of post-graduation life.

For the Political Science faculty, the work of inspiring students to actively engage in politics is an everyday part of teaching in their discipline.

“We teach Political Science in the hope that students will go on to create change on the issues they care about, so it is especially gratifying to see our recent graduates becoming political leaders and agents of change during these historic elections,” says Paul DeBell, assistant professor of Political Science.

“Given the diversity of our students and their political views, it is wonderful to witness the breadth of political issues and campaigns our students go on to fight for after having worked and learned together in the classroom for years.”

Thomas was the campaign manager for the Committee to Elect Barbara McLachlan as representative of House District 59 in the Colorado House of Representatives. Her choice to study Political Science was born from a deep desire to make a lasting positive impact on the world— Thomas wants to make the world a better place, and politics, she says “is an accessible and important first step to doing that.”

When Thomas began her work as campaign manager, she was the campaign’s only paid employee. “All of the sudden I had to budget, and fundraise, and plan events, and coordinate volunteers, and all these things that I was not expecting.” To make matters more difficult, she says, “volunteers [were] really elusive this year because of COVID.” She went on to manage the other staffers, interns, and volunteers, and was responsible for the campaign’s $150,000 budget.

“Those are things I didn’t know I could do, and I think Fort Lewis definitely helped me build up my adaptability,” Thomas says. From her perspective, the dedication of FLC faculty members was key. “I felt prepared going into this job having studied Political Science, and my relationships with professors really made me feel a lot more confident,” she explains.

Thomas sees her efforts on the McLachlan campaign as an important step toward a different kind of political work that will allow her to better leverage her experiences and education in the service of meaningful change. She plans to go to law school before finding her dream job at a nonprofit or grassroots organization.

Like Thomas, Hayden also joined the campaign trail not long after graduation. Following her lifelong passion for politics, she majored in Political Science.

“My professors further reinforced my passion for Political Science,” she says, “and my passion told me that one of my greatest purposes in life is to further the efforts of those running for office who I feel will best represent the populace.”

Hayden gravitated toward Lauren Boebert’s campaign to represent Colorado’s 3rd district in the U.S. House of Representatives. Just days after she contacted the campaign, Hayden found herself working closely with Boebert as her scheduler and personal assistant.

“I liked her message, so I reached out to her campaign page on Facebook asking if there were any local opportunities for a recent Political Science graduate to gain some real-world experience on a campaign,” she says.

Hayden forged a strong working relationship with Boebert during her time on the campaign, and although she was not able to work with her through the entire pre-election period because of the coronavirus pandemic, she hopes that her efforts will lead to “even more incredible opportunities in election politics.”

“Given the diversity of our students and their political views, it is wonderful to witness the breadth of political issues and campaigns our students go on to fight for after having worked and learned together in the classroom for years,” DeBell says.

To other Skyhawks looking to do the kind of hands-on political work that Thomas and Hayden have done, both Political Science graduates were adamant—make sure you’re “putting yourself out there and being involved in the community,” Thomas says. “Take risks,” Hayden adds, “never be afraid to take a leap of faith.”

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I spy with my little eye: The FLC Herbarium

Dating back to the 1920s, more than 17,000 SPECIMENS representing the region’s PLANT AND FUNGAL LIFE are available to the public at the FLC Herbarium

Graphic of a magnifying glass looking at pressed plants on paper

While towering mountains, expansive deserts, and rushing rivers are usually the face of the Four Corners, the presence of these looming natural features alerts the knowing observer to look closer… closer… a little closer. There. Growing from the soil, creeping through the cracks, blooms the plant life of the Southern Rocky Mountains, and some of the most delicately acclimated flora in the world.

To assist with the preservation of as much of this biodiversity as possible, Fort Lewis College is the proud home of western Colorado’s largest herbarium. From faculty and student collections dating back to the 1920s to donated collections from amateur and professional botanists, more than 17,000 specimens representing the region’s plant and fungal life are carefully catalogued and tucked away in the FLC Herbarium. Open to the public by day and accessible 24/7 online, the FLC Herbarium is relatively small by herbarium standards but it plays an integral role in documenting the vegetation of western Colorado and the Four Corners region.

“These small collections contribute something unique by being geographically localized,” says Ross McCauley, Biology professor and Herbarium curator.

McCauley has been the keeper of these fragile specimens since 2008. Since that time, he has transformed the FLC Herbarium from a few well-organized cabinets and boxes into a modern research facility. In collaboration with the Southern Rockies Herbarium Consortium, a network of 38 universities, botanical gardens, national parks, and Native American nations around the West, McCauley received a National Science Foundation grant to create a digital database, incorporating FLC’s collections into the greater 1.7 million plant specimens housed between all participating institutions.

Student working with Professor McCauley in the Herbarium

For the last decade, McCauley’s students have had opportunities to work in every aspect of herbarium management, from mounting specimens to working with relational databases and high-resolution specimen imaging. The process is standard for herbaria around the world, no matter how big or small their collections, so many of these students have been able to seamlessly move into graduate programs or even botany careers upon graduation.

The larger digitization project wrapped up last year, so newer students can now focus on maintaining these collections and creating new ones. Though FLC students and faculty occasionally seek out specific specimens for research, most inquiries come from offcampus educators, scientists, and researchers looking to examine morphological variations in regional plants, understand the distribution of important nectar plants for migrating insects, or how climate change affects plant distribution or flowering time.

“Maintaining a collection helps drive scientific discovery, and that excites me,” says McCauley. “We can be a steward of that data and make it the most useful for whatever type of scientific endeavor people may need it for.”

He points out that when herbaria began 500 years ago in Italy, those curators had no idea their collections would be used to study global shifts in climate. Centuries later, McCauley likewise has no idea how future scientists will utilize the information they find from the stems, seeds, petals, and pods found in the FLC Herbarium.

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