Friday, January 23, 2015

My graduate school essay

I am applying to the Edgewood College Sustainability Leadership masters program. Part of the application is an essay. I wrote about my background, what I hope to bring to the program and what I hope to take from it. While I haven't heard if I've been accepted or not, it's a nice little essay I thought you'd enjoy reading.

When I was five, my middle-class, college-educated parents left Milwaukee to buy 100 acres of sloping, rocky farmland in western Wisconsin. They wanted to nurture my two brothers and me in a rural community away from suburbs and, as my mom says, “…kids that had too much.” Farming the land and raising animals was a means to this end.

Theirs was a daring adventure into the unknown: two teachers with three young sons leaving home, family and job security with little more than a sense of curiosity and the experience of one year living in a farmhouse and paying rent by caring for the animals.

It turns out, however, they weren’t the only ones on this particular adventure. Unbeknownst to my parents, they relocated us into the middle of a small and enthusiastic community of back-to-the-landers who had moved to western Wisconsin for their own reasons. That community of homesteaders influenced my life immeasurably, particularly seeing that there are alternatives to traditional ways farming and family life.

I am applying to the Edgewood College Sustainability Leadership Graduate Program because this would be my daring adventure to learn new ways live and lead, sustainably.

I bring to the program the same passion that moved my parents to cast aside the familiar and try something new. I’m curious what further study in sustainability leadership will mean for me personally and professionally. I’m interested in applying what I learn on the block where I live, my neighborhood, city and beyond.

I bring decades of gardening work—picking produce from the family’s gardens, and preserving food for the winter at my mom’s side. These experiences instilled an appreciation for fresh-picked produce and home-preserved food. From these early experiences, I bring a keen awareness of the importance of food security and justice, and the inseparable relationship between sustainability and the environment to provide for human and animal needs.

I also bring more than 10 years of traditional farming experience—raising many pigs and the occasional sheep, goats, chickens, cows and a pony; planting and harvesting hay, oats and corn; and nurturing the land with large-scale tree planting and forest maintenance projects.

More recently, I bring leadership experience gained from four years leading my workplace employee community garden. As a leader, I organize, coach and encourage gardeners to maintain and improve our community garden and orchard. I regularly teach organic gardening practices and develop the next group of garden leaders. I am a long-term planner and short-term doer—qualities that will serve me well in a graduate program.

I also bring eight months of study for the Permaculture Design Certificate, which I received from the Madison Area Permaculture Guild in 2013. To say this course changed my life would be an understatement: my life path was indelibly altered thanks to the reading, videos and hands-on work, and the students and instructors I met. I bring systems thinking, which reinforces what I learned on the farm—people, plants, animals and place are deeply connected.

Finally, I bring the support of my family and my workplace. My husband and I have discussed how my participating in the program will require changes in our lives, both in terms of time for classes and study; and funds for tuition. I have his support for this endeavor. My employer, American Family Insurance, and my manager also support my participation. My company’s employee education reimbursement program will cover a portion of my tuition.

Balancing what I bring to the Sustainability Leadership Program, there are things to take—or perhaps borrow, as my dad would advise me. One spring day during the very early years of our being on the farm, my dad met a man new to the area. Rikardo asked Dad how he had gotten to know so many of “the locals.” Dad replied, “Ask your neighbor to borrow a tool, and return it in better shape than you got it.” Two days later, Rikardo came to our farm and asked to borrow a tool; this began a 30-year friendship.

Image credit:
Text: Members Syracuse Cultural Workers Community
Artist: Karen Kerney, watercolor. SCW© 1998
Throughout the program I will borrow new ideas, theories, facts and opinions from instructors, books and classmates, add my own thinking and share them with others. I will also take the challenge to read and hear these ideas with an open mind. Some things I learn will be big theoretical ideas, and others will be practical and immediately useable. I look forward to incorporating them into life.

During the last year, I interviewed seven graduates, and they all mentioned that one of the best parts of the program was building new relationships. Some connections helped them throughout the program; others turned into lasting friendships or professional relationships. I’m very excited to forge new relationships and strengthen existing ones during the program. 
Professionally, there are many opportunities to take and apply what I learn. From my community garden leadership to the people and projects I currently work with at my job, there are ample ways to incorporate further sustainability practices.

There are many ways I will incorporate what I learn into my personal life as well. Have you read the poster “How to build community?” My 2015 New Year’s Resolution is to do each of the suggestions on the poster, and write about the experience at

I’m curious to see which of the suggestions I’m drawn to and which I’m apt to shy away from. Since the Edgewood College Sustainability Leadership Program starts halfway through this year-long effort, I’m interested to see how I can apply what I learn toward accomplishing my resolution.

Finally, I’m interested in incorporating what I learn and the relationships I build  into my long-term vocation. While the actual details are uncertain, I know that what I give to and take from the program will benefit me and others for the rest of my life, much as being raised on a farm in a community of alternative thinkers did 30 years ago.

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