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Growing Good People Through Work, Study, and Community

Just outside Asheville, North Carolina, bordered by the Craggy Mountains and located in the Swannanoa Valley on the banks of the Swannanoa River, Warren Wilson College students are busy moving the cows to their next pasture and cutting locally harvested lumber at the on-campus sawmill.  A writing class meets beside beds of greens raised for campus salads, tended by the student garden crew. And just a few steps from my office, the greening crew prepares the campus quarterly energy usage report to evoke our conservation consciousness.

Don’t be fooled by the idyllic sound of all of this. You would be mistaken to assume we are less of a college and more of an extended commune from the 1960s. You may be enchanted by the young woman on the farm crew who drives past in a tractor on her way out to the field—it’s such a romantic sight. But there is so much more behind this seemingly eco-nirvana.


The EcoDorm is surrounded by edible permaculture for its landscaping. Photo courtesy of Warren Wilson College

Warren Wilson College sits on 1100 acres and includes the core campus, a working farm, organically managed gardens, and 700 acres of forests and trails. We are a work college, meaning that in addition to academics, our students work 15 hours a week on crews that are responsible for every aspect of campus operations. They also provide 100 hours of service to the greater community before graduation. Most students, however, are not satisfied with this and find they want to contribute more. This is a rigorous college. Imagine being a freshman and taking on such a workload. One of the many things our students learn here is that through engagement, interests and capabilities are awakened.

Years ago, when I first went to work for Outward Bound, I was awed by the positive change unleashed in students’ lives when they discovered they were capable of so much more than they dreamed. Time and again, through wilderness challenge, students overcame fear and adversity and learned “to serve, to strive, and not to yield.” This experience has served as a touchstone in my life and has provided optimism in dark hours. Our capacity to solve the challenges before us is relatively untapped. The possibilities for positive change are limitless, if only we strive. 


Action is grounded in the study of best practices at Warren Wilson. Photo courtesy of Warren Wilson College

This same underlying ethos is present here at Warren Wilson. We are a distinctive liberal arts college in that we believe liberal learning in the 21st century calls for more engagement. We teach critical thinking skills for this next generation of leaders and believe the best way to do that is to drench students in academic learning and immerse them in situations that demand that they practice these skills. It’s hard work, but they realize what they are capable of while they practice what they’ve learned. They come to find that the interdisciplinary problem solving they learn in the classroom provides the framework for the sustainable solutions they seek to implement in work and service.  

A member of INSULATE!, Ian Higgins shares his take on Warren Wilson, work, and his plans for the future.  Listen to his story...

Students take a lot of initiative on this campus. At a campus-wide meeting about climate change, students proposed to weatherize homes near campus for families living below the poverty level. In just two years, these students formed a community-based weatherization program called INSULATE! through Warren Wilson’s Environmental Leadership Center and partnered with the College’s Service-Learning Program, the “first year” program’s faculty, and community organizations to recruit volunteers and homes for the weatherization work. Students spend their weekends weatherizing local homes, measuring the carbon savings, and understanding the lives of the homeowners they assist. This past semester, with support from the local utility company Progress Energy, students designed and held a workshop for colleges and universities seeking to replicate the model. Imagine the life lessons learned conceiving, researching, successfully implementing, and then promoting this program.


Warren Wilson INSULATE! students prepare to weatherize a local home. Photo courtesy of Warren Wilson College

Years earlier, in 1998, a group of students who were aware that Warren Wilson would be expanding enrollment proposed that the College commit to a “green dorm” and include them in the planning process. The administration agreed, and a design team was formed consisting of students, staff, faculty, administrators, and architects who met weekly to plan what would later be called the EcoDorm. This building, they determined, would be a model of energy efficiency, sustainable decisions, and responsible lifestyle practices. When the plan was complete, more than 17 student crews participated in its construction. Its first Residence Director (a student) worked with EcoDorm residents to develop a lifestyle contract that included a pledge to use no hairdryers or personal fridges, to cook as a community at least once a week, and to live in a manner that honored community values. It is the only dorm in the nation to achieve the LEED Existing Building Platinum certification—a distinction inspired by the students who called for a “green dorm.”

For many students at Warren Wilson, living in a community that strives to practice its values in daily ways, for all its challenges, is very fulfilling. Learning how to participate as a responsible, contributing member of a strong and healthy community is an important part of a well-rounded liberal arts education. 


Students maintain the permaculture gardens at the EcoDorm. Photo courtesy of Warren Wilson College

We are convinced that the best way to educate students to become this kind of citizen is to engage them in responsible living. Our Triad curriculum, which in addition to challenging academics includes participation in the College’s work program and service to the local community, is how we teach. In and out of our classrooms, we encourage students to seek out their own interests and get involved. This is a relatively easy task because so many of the students who come here want to change the world and are eager to start now. Providing students with opportunities to connect with “place” through academics, work, and service; to identify their areas of concern; and to get involved in solutions results in a meaningful, wondrous education at Warren Wilson. Students not only receive a top-notch education, but also graduate with real work “know how” and multiple skill sets that enable them to confront and take on issues that make a difference locally and globally.

Margo Bio Photo

Margo Flood wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Margo is the Executive Director of Warren Wilson College’s Environmental Leadership Center and its Chief Sustainability Official. She joins the College, where she has worked nearly ten years, in its mission to educate, inspire, and act on behalf of environmentally, socially, culturally, and economically just communities.

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Editorial Notes: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License

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