Friday, October 10, 2008

UIS Prairie offers sustainability and opportunities to university

By Courtney Westlake



The state of Illinois had 22 million acres of prairie up until the 1820s, but since European settlers moved into area, there are now less than 2,500 acres. Caring for the prairie areas that remain is now extremely important, such as the beautiful prairie located on the south area of the UIS campus.

“We have such small remnants of prairie still left,” said Dr. Tih-Fen Ting, assistant professor of Environmental Studies. “By losing this part of the native ecosystem, we also put out a lot of other species that are associated with prairie, whether it be birds, mammals or insects. We hope that we can increase biodiversity locally and also help species that still depend on prairie for survival and reproductive needs.”

Prairie is a French word meaning ‘meadow,’ Ting said. A prairie system is made up of lot of grasses and flower species and is very productive. Prairie grasses and forbs have deep root systems, and once a plant dies, its roots decompose and become part of the soil.

The prairie at UIS was established in 1991 by the student organization Students Allied for a Greener Earth (SAGE). Bob Raebig, who was a SAGE member and later became the environmental health and safety officer at UIS, played a tremendous role for the prairie restoration, Ting said, and when he passed away in 2004, Ting took responsibility of maintaining the prairie, along with help from Joan Buckles, UIS superintendent of grounds.

“We can use this as a living laboratory to teach students about the prairie and its ecosystem,” Ting said. “Even though it’s only three acres right now, it’s still a nice opportunity to have that living laboratory on campus for students to be able to learn more about a prairie ecosystem.”

Having a restored prairie on campus is beneficial not only to the campus community but to the environment and to sustainability in general.

“Sustainability is a broad issue in the sense that it involves not only environmental stewardship but social responsibilities and economic wellbeing,” Ting said. “There are many ecological benefits the prairie can provide. It increases biodiversity in a human-dominant landscape. And it does not preclude the opportunity for other species to be able to co-exist with us, which is important for sustainability.”

The prairie is also appealing for its aesthetic value and provides a natural setting for people to come, Ting said.

“It's such a beautiful place, and I think people will get inspiration for all kinds of work,” she said.

In the early days, a prairie was maintained by fires from lightning or grazing done by bison, Ting said. Now, UIS uses the method of fire-prescribed burns to maintain the health of the prairie ecosystem. The Friends of Sangamon Valley assists UIS in conducting species inventory and prescribed burns.

“Those are the ways to prevent trees, brushes and shrubs from taking over the prairie ecosystem. We try to mimic the natural force with controlled fires,” Ting said. “The fire will help release nutrients from vegetation back to the soil so it will enhance soil productivity and help other plants to grow. It also helps to control a lot of invasive species as well.”

The UIS prairie gives the campus community the opportunity to be immersed in a different kind of natural setting, Ting said.

“I encourage everyone to come here. It’s right on campus, on west side of the Strawbridge-Shepherd House,” she said. “There are beautiful species and grasses. You can come, meditate, take a nice walk, and it will probably help with your day.”

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Eric Thibodeaux-Thompson receives ITA Award of Excellence

Eric Thibodeaux-Thompson, associate professor and director of theatre, has received the Award of Excellence in the College/University Division from the Illinois Theatre Association. The award was presented during ITA's 2008 Convention, held at Illinois State University in September.

Each year, the ITA recognizes both individuals and organizations for significant contributions in promoting quality theatre throughout the state. Recipients are nominated by the Illinois theatre community.

Thibodeaux-Thompson has served as a board member and co-chair of the ITA College/University Division and was co-chair of the organization's 2007 convention.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Wing in LRH promotes leadership and service

By Courtney Westlake



Even before school started, students in the Leadership for Life Service Wing in Lincoln Residence Hall were lending a hand, volunteering for the local Special Olympics.

“Everyone is just genuinely interested in doing volunteer work,” said Charles Olivier, a sophomore who is the resident assistant for the wing.

The Leadership for Life Service Wing is the only living-learning community in LRH and provides residence to 28 first-year and sophomore students. The wing has a new focus this year on both leadership and service, said Kelly Thompson, director of the Volunteer and Civic Engagement Center at UIS.

“They really go hand in hand,” Thompson said. “We’re trying to work with first-year students to help build their service and their leadership skills. We want our first-year students to feel comfortable and at home at UIS, and we want them to know that we're here to help them, as well as engage them with the campus and the community.”

Students living in the Leadership for Life Wing have service requirements that they need to complete, as well as several service programs to attend each semester, Thompson said. One of their first activities was a leadership retreat at Camp Cilca, which Thompson described as “very enlightening.”

Besides volunteering at the Special Olympics before classes started, the residents of the wing were also able to work together in service when Senator Barack Obama was in town to introduce his running mate.

“It really tested our bonds with each other; we were out there for seven hours in the heat, but it was a good experience,” Olivier said. “We also all came together in the first weeks and had a party for some of the residents who had a birthday after they moved in.”

To join the Leadership for Life wing in LRH, students fill out an application, explaining why they have an interest in service and what volunteer opportunities they have been involved in.

“The students all have a passion for volunteering and all have backgrounds in service and volunteerism - mission trips to other countries, activities in their communities, awards they've been given,” Thompson said. “They have a wide variety of interests they would like to explore, such as working with animals, children, the homeless and different special needs populations. Our job is to be that link and help them explore those options and feel that connection to the university as well as the community at large.”

Olivier lived in the service leadership wing last year and said he feels it is a very positive environment and brings students together with a common interest.

“You know that other people are involved in something you like doing,” he said. “We promote development of leadership through building connections with community organizations or having volunteer services on campus.”

Olivier has high hopes for his first year as a resident assistant and believes his residents will have a big impact on the campus.

“It's exciting; we have fun,” he said. “I believe volunteering is not a one-way street. Everyone who volunteers gets something back, even if it’s not money. You gain a sense of humility and gratitude. I think it's important and an important part of leadership.”

Research has shown a relationship between civic engagement and how well students do in school, and Thompson hopes to foster a sense of the importance of service and leadership in the residents of the Leadership for Life wing and all students at UIS.

“We want our students to be better informed about their own leadership skills and better informed about service opportunities, and what it means to them to be involved in service, how that might affect their major and even their course for what they do in their life after they leave UIS,” she said.

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