A cohort of support: Community Environmental Scholars Program celebrates five years of student and civic impact

September 23, 2015

Mia McKinney never considered herself a “bees and trees” environmentalist. She came to UW-Madison with the intent of getting a degree in a practical field like industrial engineering. But after three years of feeling isolated and on her own, McKinney found the Nelson Institute – or rather, the Nelson Institute found her.

“I still don’t know how they found me, but they found me,” says McKinney, who grew up in Racine, Wis. “They” was the Nelson Institute’s Community Environmental Scholars Program, or CESP. After questioning whether she was the right person for a program that she assumed was focused on saving nature, she found herself being pushed to think more broadly about sustainability.

Rob Beattie, a CESP academic coordinator and instructor, was the one doing the pushing.

“Rob asked me to tell him my philosophy on sustainability,” McKinney says. “We had an hour-long conversation, and in that instant I figured out that sustainability isn’t just one solid color. Everyone sees it differently.”

Nelson Institute alumna Mia McKinney
Mia McKinney

McKinney was a member of the first student cohort in CESP, a service-learning-oriented, need-based scholarship program that receives support from Wisconsin’s Normal School Fund (an endowment for public education established in the Wisconsin Constitution) and from a National Science Foundation S-STEM grant.

The program focuses on students from underrepresented communities, veterans and first-generation college students.

According to McKinney, CESP was a turning point in her academic career, creating opportunities she never could have imagined. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in city and regional planning at Georgia Tech, looking at ways to mitigate gentrification while bringing viable real estate development to disenfranchised communities.

“By no means would I be where I am now without CESP,” says McKinney. “I got a full scholarship to go to Georgia Tech through relationships I cultivated through CESP.”

In its relatively short history – the first cohort graduated in 2011 – CESP has opened doors for many students like McKinney. The program has equipped them with the understanding that “environment” means so much more than nature, ranging from farmland to urban centers and including the places people live, work and play.

That concept was central to a Nelson Institute film festival out of which CESP arose.

From film festival to full-blown program

The theme of the Nelson Institute’s Tales From Planet Earth film festival in 2009 was “justice.” Gregg Mitman, then director of the Nelson Institute, strived to expand what people thought of as environmental film within a social justice frame.

Intrigued by the changing demographics across Wisconsin and the lack of minority representation in the environmental sciences, Mitman hoped to make the Nelson Institute more welcoming to diverse communities. The film festival brought together community organizations like Centro Hispano, Community Groundworks, and First United Methodist Church, and developed service-learning opportunities in which students worked with and helped advance the needs of community partners. As a result, a more inclusive conversation around the environment began to emerge, informed by perspectives rooted in issues of social and environmental justice.

While the film festival laid the groundwork for bringing different communities together, Mitman knew the Nelson Institute could do more.

“Through our work with community partners, I was really interested in how we might help to foster more diverse economic, ethnic, and racial perspectives on environmental issues in the Nelson Institute,” says Mitman. “The idea – based on the work of that 2009 festival – was to develop a financial needs-based program for underrepresented undergraduates that would provide them with a set of leadership training and community organizing skills.”

After confirming that the program would receive support through the Normal School Fund, Mitman reached out to Beattie and then-Nelson Institute staff members Molly Schwebach, Carmela Diosana and Tristan Marotz to develop the program.

Nelson Institute staff members who developed CESPFrom left to right: Rob Beattie, Tristan Marotz, Carmela Diosana and Molly Schwebach


Creating a community

Beattie recalls spending most of the summer of 2010 hammering out the details of CESP.

“Tristan, Molly, Carmela and I worked to design a program that would be community-based, have a professional development component, and provide an environmentally focused instructional piece that linked everything together,” says Beattie.

That fall, CESP held its first seminar, a one-credit course that students would take for three consecutive semesters. Unique among many collegiate scholarship programs, CESP is cohort-based.

“Students participate for several semesters in a row,” Beattie says. “They get to meet one another, then see one another semester after semester. At a big university like UW-Madison, having an opportunity to see the same people is huge; it builds community in a way that’s hard to find in other parts of the university.”

Nelson Institute student Carly Vinkavich
Carly Vinkavich

For Carly Vinkavich, a current student, CESP provides more than just an opportunity to explore her interests in environmental studies and engage in community-service projects, a key component of the program.

“CESP has given me a home on campus,” Vinkavich says.

Soon after starting school at UW-Madison, Vinkavich began to feel like she was falling behind her peers. As a first-generation college student from Franksville, a rural town in Racine County, Wis., Vinkavich grew up among a community of blue-collar workers. She pursued business because it seemed like the safest economic choice. Going into college, she didn’t know she could be a scientist or a wildlife technician, or work at a nonprofit. She didn’t understand the importance of internships, how to write a cover letter, or that she could study abroad for credit.

“Being a first-generation college student is a deceptive handicap,” says Vinkavich. “There was so much I didn't know that I didn't know.”

Many first-generation students lack support or understanding at home. CESP has strived to create a space where students can talk about the challenges they face staying connected with family while taking a different path in life.

“There is this growing void between me and 99 percent of my family and hometown friends,” says Vinkavich. “As an environmental studies and political science major, I’ve learned so much about our impact on the planet. Yet my family continues to live as they always have. Some of my family has accused me of being brainwashed by Madison because I care about recycling, mass extinction, and climate change. Not fitting in at home and not connecting with my peers was very isolating. CESP was the first place on campus where I was around people who had similar experiences.”

S-STEM grant pushes CESP forward

As CESP continued to gain popularity and demand for the program increased, the founders knew they needed to pursue additional funding to support more students.

In 2011, Beattie came across a call from the National Science Foundation for the S-STEM program that provided undergraduate scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Although not all of the CESP students had majors in STEM fields, about 40 percent of Nelson’s undergraduates were in STEM disciplines.

With the right principal investigator and a strong proposal, Beattie knew CESP had a chance. That’s when he connected with Cathy Middlecamp.

Middlecamp had just joined the Nelson Institute as a professor of environmental studies. She previously had been the director of the Chemistry Learning Center, an academic support program for at-risk students enrolled in general and organic chemistry courses. Her experience working with undergraduates and her long history of research with the NSF made her the perfect PI.

Nelson Institute Professor Cathy Middlecamp
Cathy Middlecamp

“I’ve been involved with CESP from the start of my time at the Nelson Institute. It dovetailed so nicely with the work I did before I got here,” says Middlecamp.

After receiving UW-Madison’s first NSF S-STEM grant, CESP was able to provide an additional $520,000 in scholarships over a five-year period. As the current S-STEM grant comes to a close, Middlecamp, Beattie, and their Nelson Institute colleagues are preparing to apply for another S-STEM grant this fall.

“NSF has funded this program for a long time,” Middlecamp says. “They have put a lot of money and thought into what works in supporting students, and I think what they learned – and they may have known it all along – is that just giving a student a scholarship isn’t enough. While the money may be useful, the bigger potential is untapped if at the same time you don’t create a community to go with it.”

For Middlecamp, the NSF’s call for proposals had a striking similarity to what CESP had been doing all along. It was a realization that not only made her confident in securing funding, but also confirmed that the work she was doing with CESP was rewarding for both the students and the Nelson Institute as a whole.

“In some ways, the NSF told our own story back to us: ‘cohorts are good, faculty involvement is good, and continuity with students is good.’ I think the NSF helped us by reinforcing and affirming what we were doing,” says Middlecamp. “We didn’t have to adjust ourselves at all to fit in the S-STEM program. Rather, it was a natural fit. S-STEM matched our vision, our passion, and our mission to a T.”

With the additional funding from NSF, CESP is able to support roughly 20 new students each year. As a result, there are now roughly 40 students in the program each semester.

Campus-wide impact

The Nelson Institute’s undergraduate major in environmental studies requires students to pursue a double major, bringing a broad range of academic interests together.

“There are so many ideas and interests. It makes the Nelson Institute a really inclusive and dynamic environment. And CESP is like a smaller family within the larger Nelson family,” says Vinkavich.

"I think the coolest
thing is to work with
students and see their
eyes get opened to
possibilities that they
never considered before
being in this program."

Since its creation, CESP has funded 126 students pursuing 48 different majors. The program reaches well beyond the Nelson Institute.

“What makes the CESP program so cool is how it cuts across campus, serving students with majors in almost every school and college, providing an extra cohort experience and a chance to give back to the community,” says Nelson Institute Director Paul Robbins. “We think of CESP as a whole-UW program, serving agriculture, engineering, science and the arts.”

Regardless of their background, ensuring students reach their full potential while providing them the opportunity to explore their passion is what pushes Beattie to keep fighting for CESP.

“I think the coolest thing is to work with students and see their eyes get opened to possibilities that they never considered before being in this program,” he says. “Seeing students open up to these possibilities and then graduate with a really different idea of where they want to go and what they might do, and feeling confident about that journey, makes it all worthwhile.”

As CESP continues to succeed, developing young leaders who are ready for their next step in life, alumni like McKinney hope to stay connected.

“The academic support, the personal-growth support, the financial support was just so good for me,” McKinney says. “Without CESP, I don’t know where I’d be.”

Nelson Institute garden cleanup at Troy GardensCommunity-service projects — for example, assisting at Madison’s Troy Gardens — are a key component of CESP.


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