Walking in to the room, anyone would have thought they had been friends for years. There was laughing, joking and a lot of posing for pictures. No one would have guessed they had all met the night before at Eppley Airfield in Omaha, Neb.
In mid-October nine Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority members gathered at Lied Lodge and Conference Center in Nebraska City, Neb. to train for their year-long internship with Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree Campus USA® program. During the course of the weekend they learned more than how to increase tree awareness and sustainability efforts on their campuses, they formed lifelong connections to each other and the environment.
“This opportunity for fellowship with like-minded sisters is great,” Mueni Loko Rudd from Houston-Tillotson University said. “Learning together helps to better prepare us to achieve our goals.”
The Arbor Day Foundation partnered with AKA in 2012. AKA’s mission is “service to all mankind.” Tree Campus USA recognition requires a tree care plan, service-learning projects and Arbor Day observances. By working with Tree Campus USA, AKA members said they work to improve sustainability efforts and make the planet a better place.
“It’s an opportunity for undergraduate members of Alpha Kappa Alpha to participate in our economic sustainability initiatives and economic stewardship,” AKA President Carolyn House Steward said. “And it’s an opportunity to show others the great work that Alpha Kappa Alpha women do.”
The ambassadors came from different regions around the country, each offering a unique perspective on how trees affect their campus. From Alanna Tremble at Wayne State University in Detroit to Tayler Bolton at the University of Oklahoma, to Tori Williams at the University of California – Irvine, trees hold varying significance.
“Being located in the inner-city, trees are important because they make the campus look nice on top of providing clean air,” Tremble said.
Beautification is also important on Williams’ campus. While there is already a park with trees on campus, Williams said she believes there is a need for more trees on campus to distinguish it from other California schools.
“We’re part of the UC (University of California) system, but we have a park, which is something others don’t have,” said Williams. “So having trees shows something different that we offer when people come to visit.”
While beautification holds some significance for Bolton, shade is key on her campus, located in the heat of Oklahoma.
“Trees are so important because they make us want to be on campus,” Bolton said. “They provide shade. When it’s nice outside we’ll have class under trees sometimes.”
At the training in Nebraska City, the women were taken through the Tree Adventure, an interactive experience to learn about trees and their positive effects on the environment, and learned more about different types of trees, their importance in the environment and how to teach others about trees.
This walk through the Tree Adventure trails included using their senses to connect with nature. Lauren Sandoval, Trees Atlanta education coordinator, led the walk. She encouraged the women to stop and feel the bark of trees and listen to the sounds of rustling leaves, singing birds and walnuts falling. They also stopped and tried to sketch what they saw.
“Taking a moment to sketch was something that was very natural,” Selena Gaddy from Georgia Southern University said. “It’s about appreciating the beauty we overlook day to day.”
Many of the ambassadors expressed an interest in bringing a similar experience back to their own campuses to connect students to the nature around them.
The hike concluded with lunch, apple picking and a tree-planting demonstration. For most of the ambassadors this was their first tree planting and offered them an opportunity to learn how to do it properly and share that with their campuses.
These nine ambassadors will take everything they learned in Nebraska City back to their campus and cultivate dedication to trees that will continue past their year-long internship.
“They can make a difference by getting others interested in environmental stewardship,” Stewart said. “I hope that it is going to be a lifelong learning experience for them.”