I’ve lived in the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) neighborhood for years and often felt frustrated by the lack of visible student activity and the dearth of information about UDC’s activities. But in the last few months I have had the luxury of time to learn more about happenings at UDC, and I am impressed by the energy and purpose that I found.
I’ve met with some UDC folks, scoured UDC’s web site, looked up leads, and found bits of news in the local press (i.e. Forest Hills Connection) that are both exciting and daunting. Here are just a few interesting things I’ve learned.
My first finding is that I shouldn’t take the lack of UDC news personally. The press rarely covers UDC in spite of it being the city’s only public university. I know from my recent research that there’s lots of news that would be of interest and could have some significant bearing on our lives. There’s a lot going on!
My second finding is that certain parts of the university are developing real strengths. With outstanding programs, new leadership, and exciting synergies across different parts of the university and with the goal of meshing UDC’s programs with the goals of the city for urban sustainability, improved health and nutrition, and economic development. There is an explicit strategic focus that inspires hope in the heart of at least one cautious optimist.
In fact, UDC recently won three Sustainable DC Innovation Challenge grants, totaling $921,000. They are to be used for; 1. Building three aquaponics facilities in neighborhoods; 2. Building a commercial kitchen facility and food truck to promote nutrition and entrepreneurship, and 3. Creating a native plants nursery for combating invasive plants and restoring native habitats.
These three examples happen to be occurring under the auspices of my third discovery, the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability, and Environmental Studies (CAUSES) and its highly regarded global leader, Dean Sabine O’Hara. It’s in this college that many of the important mandates of land-grant universities, of which UDC is one, are pursued. Each state in the Union has at least one land-grant university, and when UDC was founded in 1977, it was designated DC’s land grant university, given a small endowment, and it became eligible for all types of federal support for land-grant universities. These opportunities are mostly meted out through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and support the university’s commitment to the three pillars of land grant universities throughout the U.S.: Research of a practical nature, teaching and service. These three pillars shape the dean’s vision for CAUSES.
Dean O’Hara, an environmental economist, brings a distinguished research and administration background to the college. This year, in addition to being the dean, she serves as the president-elect of the International Society for Ecological Economists, and prior to joining UDC she was the president of Randolph College and vice president of the Council for International Exchange of Scholars (CIES) that administers the State Department’s Fulbright Scholars program.
Sustainability is the organizing theme of the five centers in the college, with each having an academic and land grant focus. They include the Center for Sustainable Development, with a focus on green entrepreneurship and green infrastructure; the Architecture Research Institute, which partners with the Department of Urban Architecture and focuses on urban issues of design, rehabilitation, and transportation; the Center for Nutrition, Diet and Health; the Center for Urban 4-H and Youth Development, and the Center for Urban Agriculture and Gardening Education, coupled with health education and public health academic programs.
Food sustainability and urban gardening are key themes. UDC has a 140-acre farm in Beltsville, Maryland. Muirkirk Research Farm is the locus of many of the food, agriculture, environmental research and innovation programs. Currently, a major soil composting initiative is under way, as well as the experiments with urban fish farming.
UDC has joined the ranks of other universities that are responding to the needs of working adults who want to improve their knowledge in science, engineering and math and their management, communication, and policy skills by offering a new degree, the Professional Science Master’s degree. UDC’s is in Water Resource Management.
Not all initiatives are successful, but programs that draw high school students into real research experiences are very popular. One is the EnvironMentors program that gives high school students a chance to be mentored by federal researchers at EPA, USDA and other federal agencies and do real scientific field work. Another is the 4-H Summer Camp and Summer Bridge programs helping students gain necessary skills for succeeding in college.
Unfortunately, UDC also has daunting challenges, not the least of which are low enrollment, a poor reputation, and a serious budget crisis. Local high school graduates are reluctant to attend their land grant University, and while the tuition isn’t exorbitant as compared to other local institutions, it’s still much more than many young people can afford. Older adult students also have many conflicting responsibilities, often can’t take more than one course at a time, and find the tuition challenging. And often, their academic skills are weak.
The new UDC Community College is a most welcome addition and while located at 801 North Capitol Street, NW, it is a part of the UDC system, and offers workforce training and is a feeder school for the University. Its creation is an enormously important step for the city. In order for this to work, DC schools and the upper division university all have to cooperate. It’s the beginning of a genuine system that needs to flourish if DC is to be the modern city we desire, and to work for all eight wards of the city.
I close by asking how the local community can help UDC continue down this promising path and begin to have a more positive public perception. We can help by taking greater interest in our local university; joining programs such as the Master Gardener course, and seeking out ways to interact with the University faculty, leaders, and students. I noted in my perusal of UDC’s web site that the university is beginning to reach out to the community with invitations to attend lectures and concerts. The university also offers free auditing privileges to all seniors. Applications must be made through the Institute of Gerontology in Building 39, Suite 101.
What can the community offer in return? We can help spread UDC news. We can bring UDC expertise into symposia and meetings about issues critical to DC’s future, such as education, health and the environment. And we can offer our expertise and resources in return. We all will gain from a vibrant and strong university.
Special thanks to the author. It's gratifying to know our hard work is paying off. There is still a ways to go, but we here in CAUSES are committed to achieving our lofty goals.