First Experiences on the River of Dreams

If someone were to ask you, “What is Environmental Advocacy?” would you be able to provide an answer for them?

The students of Millersville University’s first environmental advocacy class, led by Dr. Justin Mando, spent a semester trying to pick apart the meaning of that question together.

Their investigation began with a trip down the River.

Shank’s Mare Outfitters, located in York County, Pennsylvania, became the site of their discovery. On a field trip funded by the River Stewards, a non-profit organization whose main intention is to raise awareness and appreciation for our water resources, a class of about 20 students strapped on their life vests and got a hands-on, feet-wet education from the Winand family on the history of the Susquehanna.

Dr. Justin Mando (center back) and his class during their visit to Shank’s Mare Outfitters. Photo was taken by Devin Winand, their river guide for the day.

Dr. Justin Mando (center back) and his class during their visit to Shank’s Mare Outfitters. Photo was taken by Devin Winand, their river guide for the day.


After returning to the classroom, the students discussed their experiences on the river and were able to make some interesting connections. The students were able to relate their experience paddling on the river with readings that Dr. Mando had shared with them throughout the first weeks of the class. The concepts of close observation that Charles Fergus and Annie Dillard had offered them through their writings had suddenly gained meaning and the students found a deeper connection with the Susquehanna and those concerned with it after discussing the narrative rhetoric offered by these authors.

The class continued their curiosity by examining the works of Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson. These works led the class to think about the implications that human action can have on the environment and therefore, the inherent obligation to make up for the destruction that we may cause.

The remainder of the course of these students’ semester was shaped by the “Tiny Ecology” project they were assigned. Dr. Mando encouraged them to pick an environment, be it a lake or a street corner, and observe it, nothing more. He asked the students to post bi-weekly updates on their chosen space and relate what they observed to the topics discussed in class. Much to their surprise, the students developed much deeper connections with their chosen space than they thought possible.

The class was visited by Kristen Wolf, the Chesapeake Bay Coordinator of the Department of Environmental Protection, who spoke about the importance of raising awareness of environmental issues around the globe. Wolf emphasized the importance of citizen scientists and what it takes to motivate people to care about an issue that may not directly affect them. She explained the work that she has done with the Chesapeake Bay Program relating to species and resource protection, and how the threats affecting local bodies of water travel downstream and affect the larger bodies they empty into. In the case of the Susquehanna River, contaminants that enter the water are carried all the way to the Chesapeake Bay, where their potency is amplified.

With these ideas in mind, the class began to further their knowledge by reading Garrigan and Carbaugh & Cerulli. These readings gave the students the insight to consider the importance of “place.” Considering these new ideas, the students of Mando’s class entered the next phase of their class and began constructing their own “Susquehanna story.”  These stories took the form of many different media styles, including fiction and non-fiction pieces, videography, photographic stories, and poetry. Every student took the time to observe and investigate the Susquehanna River and really take into consideration the significance that the river has for those who use and enjoy it, both recreationally and as a resource. Ranging from the native Susquehannock Indians, who relied on the river for spiritual guidance and physical sustenance, up to modern-day fracking debates, the students became advocates and voices for the river to tell its story.

Dr. Mando, along with one of his students, Madeline Giardina, took what they had learned to the Susquehanna River Symposium at Bucknell University. Here, they shared the experiences the class had investigating and interacting with the river. They reflected on their experiences and spoke about how important it is to be respectful of not just the Susquehanna River, but of all land and rivers, for the history they preserve and the life they provide for.

The rest of the class was given the opportunity to share their personal work at an open-mic held at Saxby’s, a café on campus. If they chose to, students were able to share the stories they had produced with each other and with other interested students. The goal of these readings was to share the stories that were crafted about the river and emphasize the importance of raising awareness for relevant issues.

Dr. Justin Mando and his class after presenting their Susquehanna stories at Saxby’s.
Dr. Justin Mando and his class after presenting their Susquehanna stories at Saxby’s.

One observer present at the reading was Chris Steuer, Millersville’s Sustainability manager. Steuer became actively involved with the Advocacy class and came to speak about the University’s sustainability efforts and the logistics that surround sustainable action. He highlighted sources of funding and resistance to change as being two key factors that make completing sustainability projects difficult.

The students took these ideas into consideration and applied them to real-life scenarios. Each student chose a subject under the larger umbrella of “sustainability,” and did extensive research and evaluations of the ways these topics are presented in science writing, in public writing, and in current campaigns. After examining various forms of literature, they began to construct their own “Environmental Advocacy Campaigns.”

These campaigns inspired and challenged students to recall the various forms of writings that they had studied throughout the semester and use them to build informed opinions on the way these issues are addressed in society. The subjects chosen ranged from issues influencing large-scale populations, such as water pollution and trash disposal, to the current sustainability efforts acted out at Millersville University. The finished campaigns included critical evaluations and comparisons of environmental discourse representing their topics, a report representing their findings and how this discourse could be improved in the future, and their own individual collections of work depicting what they determined to be successful advocacy campaigns for their chosen subjects.

Using all of the information and knowledge that they had collected through the semester, the Students of Environmental Advocacy gained the insight and skill to critically evaluate and produce effective forms of environmental discourse. So what does “Environmental Advocacy” mean, exactly? After experiencing Dr. Mando’s class, his students conclude that environmental advocacy means being honest and responsible for your actions and how they affect the environment; it means sharing important, scientific information with the general public in a way that they can understand; and above all else, it means stewardship and speaking up for those who cannot speak up for themselves.

—- Madeline Giardina