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Professor Robert Trapp teaches a class on debate.Professor Robert Trapp teaches a class on debate.

Zack Lange '12 discusses his sustainability project with Professor Joe Bowersox.Zack Lange '12 discusses his sustainability project with Professor Joe Bowersox.

The students visit a beach near Dalian that was the site of an oil spill last summer.The students visit a beach near Dalian that was the site of an oil spill last summer.

Students from China, South Africa and the U.S. work together on a class project.Students from China, South Africa and the U.S. work together on a class project.

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China institute encourages students to re-think sustainability

Solar thermal hot water collectors spanning the roofs of buildings while nearby coal-fired power plants clog the air with pollution. A light rail line encouraging public transportation amidst high-rises that have been boarded up because they were only made to last 20 years. Deluxe-sized department stores displaying lighted billboards as the country experiences rolling electricity blackouts.

Six Willamette University undergraduates and four professors observed these contradictions this summer in Dalian, China — in a country trying to keep the environment in mind while working to maintain its place as a developing powerhouse with a population of more than a billion.

Exploring sustainability abroad — and making comparisons to a sometimes equally contradictory movement in the U.S. — was just one of the goals of the group participating in Willamette’s China Advocacy Institute.

They also studied alongside Chinese and visiting South African students, encouraging everyone involved to turn a critical eye toward these issues and to use debate and advocacy as a way of creating solutions.

“This program is part of Willamette’s mission, in a sense,” says trip participant Joe Bowersox, professor of environmental and earth sciences and director of Willamette’s Center for Sustainable Communities. “When we think about sustainability, we want to engage people far beyond our 60-acre campus.

“But the program isn’t about bringing sustainability to students in China. It’s about engaging them in a conversation, because we can learn a lot from them as well.”

A Different Look at Sustainability

The Advocacy Institute allowed the Willamette group to spend about two weeks at Dalian Nationalities University. The professors — Robert Trapp and Una Kimokeo-Goes from rhetoric and media studies, and Bowersox and Scott Pike from environmental and earth sciences — taught sustainability and debate to classes of Willamette students mixed with students from China and South Africa.

The students also took classes from several Dalian Nationalities University professors. At the end, they participated in a debate about the issues they had tackled in class and through field trips around the area.

They visited a nearby beach to discuss the government’s clean-up of a massive oil spill there last summer. They also spent several days in a village where they observed another clash between tradition and progress — the town was slated to be demolished to make room for modern apartments.

“The institute encouraged us to ask questions like, ‘What are we losing when such a place is destroyed?’ ‘Are such areas worth preserving at all?’ and ‘What do we gain, and what is the cost?’” says Torey Osborne ’13, an anthropology and English major.

“The discussion of the sometimes abstract concept of sustainability became intensely personalized as I talked to Chinese students about their conversations with the displaced villagers.”

Gaining New Perspectives

The debate aspect of the trip was new to Zack Lange ’12, an environmental and earth sciences major.

“As a scientist, it’s important for me to learn how to advocate for myself and how to defend my opinions or my results through the language of debate,” he says.

Many of the students had never been abroad, and they value their new friendships with the Chinese students.

“Some of my biggest learning experiences were the interchanges with them about what our countries are like,” Lange says.

“We spent days discussing countless cultural similarities and differences,” Osborne says, “anything from how we’re able to voice our opinion on political issues, to our ideals concerning what the model citizen should look like, to the proper uses of the word ‘cool’ in conversation.”

These interactions also encouraged the Willamette students to reflect on their own culture in addition to their ideas about sustainability, says Pike, associate professor of environmental and earth sciences.

“Programs like this integrate so much of what Willamette does — bringing together people and ideas from different disciplines, and mixing in an international experience,” he says.