Local OPRFHS Graduate Travels to Northern India For Research and Humanitarian Work

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By Community Editor

Bailey Stewart graduated from Oak Park River Forest High School in 2014 and went on to pursue her academic career at Western State Colorado University, in Gunnison, Colorado.  There she is majoring in Environmental Sustainability with a minor in art. Last semester she was awarded the Mahaffey Scholarship for demonstrating environmental activism, community involvement, academic excellence and environmental solutions. Last semester she studied Environmental Sustainability and Spanish in San Jose, Costa Rica and focused on the effects of hydroelectric dams on local watersheds, as well as the importance of tropical botany to Costa Rica.  

This summer she will be traveling to India for a month to study mountain resilience along with 15 other undergraduate and graduate students from Western State Colorado University. Her goal is to learn as much as possible about how local communities are dealing with the rapidly receding Himalayan glaciers that provide drinking water for over 1.5 billion people. She also hopes to study potential environmental solutions regarding climate change that could be applicable to Gunnison. Gunnison Colorado has many similarities to Majkhali India. They are both headwater communities, they are both at high altitudes, they both rely heavily on tourism for their economy, and they are both seeing the blunt end of a rapidly changing climate that heavily affects their water source, tourism, and agriculture.

From May 20 to June 13, Western State Colorado University's School of Environment and Sustainability (ENVS) will facilitate a "Mountain Resiliency" course in the Himalayas of northern India. The course was designed as a Western Master in Environmental Management (MEM) project by former MEM student Brandon McNamara, in partnership with Gunnison's Coldharbour Institute. Western professors Karen and John Hausdoerffer will join McNamara to co-teach the course with Ajay Rastogi from India's Foundation for the Contemplation of Nature, emphasizing sustainability efforts in the mountains of India and assessing how to cultivate more resilient mountain communities here in Colorado. MEM student Ellen Ross stated, "these mutually beneficial relationships will enhance opportunities in Gunnison and other mountain communities to learn from one another in our unique high-altitude environments." 

Bailey Stewart and three other women in the ENVS department recently spoke to City Counsel of Gunnison to ask for the cities approval of becoming a Sister City with Majkhali, India. A Sister City partnership with Gunnison and Majkhali means that both cities agree to a long-term partnership that strengthens their cultural, educational, and environmental awareness of each other.  

The council approved becoming a Sister City with excitement and also allocated funds to the trip to help pay for supplies to build a water tank in Majkhali. "You are emissaries of the Mayor of Gunnison," said Mayor Jim Gelwicks to the group of committed students, "rather than seeking the most famous cities as partners, we are reaching out to Sister Cities that share characteristics with Gunnison, such as our location at the headwaters of our nations, our mountain trail systems, and our tourism and agricultural economies that depend on well-protected natural resources." Becoming a Sister City opens up opportunities for fellowships, grants, and a vast connection network for Gunnison and Majkhali to learn from each other. 

While in India students will participate in a homestay cultural immersion as well as a five day trek through the Himalayas to better understand different socio-economic and cultural perspectives. Undergraduate Environment and Sustainability major Bailey Stewart commented, "by living with a family, we will get to see their everyday routine and hopefully become a part of it. This will give us students a deeper perspective into the mountain community of Majkhali." 

In addition to learning local resiliency strategies of these forest communities, students will foster reciprocity by building a water tank to provide access to clean water for a main thoroughfare in the forest. The neighboring village of Sunderkhal is located about five kilometers walk from the main road in Majkhali, where all the infrastructure such as the primary hospital, secondary school, post office, and bank are located. Everyday villagers walk back and forth through the forest that lies between Sunderkhal and Majkhali, from small children walking to school, to women seeking wood and water, to older villagers. It is important for them to have a small shelter and water point somewhere in-between.  

Western students will bring back vital knowledge for building mountain-based resilience in Gunnison, including high-altitude agricultural and alternative energy practices, sustainable architecture, and zero waste knowledge. The students will learn to work with minimal resources to lead a sustainable life built on social and ecological interdependence.

The students have been holding course fundraising events for the trip throughout the winter and spring around Gunnison. Interested community members may donate to https://www.crowdrise.com/o/en/campaign/mountainresiliency/jakeburchmore or contact John Hausdoerffer at jhausdoerffer@western.edu or Bailey Stewart at bailey.stewart@western.edu
To learn more about the Foundation for the Contemplation of Nature please visit http://foundnature.org

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