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Enriching students and the environment through service learning at CVCC

This week, EducationNC is spotlighting perspectives from those we are thankful for: our students and our educators. Follow along as we share the stories of first-generation college students and five educators at Catawba Valley Community College.

I am the proud product of the North Carolina Community College system. Being a non-traditional student who started college at Western Piedmont Community College in Morganton at age 29, I reaped the benefits of the lowered costs, smaller class size, and caring faculty that is found at the community college level.  I was also able to develop close associations and friendships with various members of the faculty at WPCC — relationships that I have maintained to this day.

Those relationships helped me to reach my full potential and made the transfer to the University of North Carolina at Asheville for my Bachelors of Arts in Biology much easier. I then continued my education at Western Carolina University where I received my Masters of Science in Biology in 2000. After spending one year as a guest lecturer at Western, I joined the faculty at Catawba Valley Community College in 2001, and I plan on teaching here until I retire.

I never consciously planned on teaching, but when I was asked what my future plans were when I was a sophomore, my first reply was teaching.  My mother taught middle school and high school for 28 years, so teaching is in my blood. I knew that if I could make the same difference to students that my mother and other mentors had made in the lives of students, I would be a success. 

I have tried my hardest over the past 17 years to be a positive influence to my students and colleagues. Students coming back to visit have let me know that I have succeeded in that. I truly love teaching and strive daily to improve what I do in and out of the classroom.

Fostering students through service learning

The thing I love most about my job is the opportunity to engage my students in community service. Over 10 years ago, I started service learning projects with my second semester general biology students. This project snowballed into what is now three separate areas of work. Typically we work locally, but in the past we have traveled to Linville Gorge to perform invasive plant removal and trail maintenance. I am very proud of the service learning projects I have started with my students, as these projects get the students involved in their community.

Students prep a site along the Geitner bike way for planting. Courtesy of Emily Whiteley

Eventually, I made service learning a mandatory part of the students’ coursework because I find that the outdoor experience teaches teamwork and personal responsibility as well as instilling a sense of ownership of community areas that no classroom can do. I have seen a positive change in the attitudes and grades of my students even when the material covered in class may not totally relate to the project we are working on. The students have gained confidence in themselves and know that they can rely on their classmates and myself if they get in a bind.

Currently, I have three projects going — a wetland restoration at Glenn C. Hilton Jr. Memorial Park and a native plant display garden along the Geitner bike way connecting Hickory City Park and Rotary Park, both in Hickory, and a native grassland project at Riverbend Park in Catawba County. The Riverbend Park project is still in the planning stages and will give the students the opportunity to participate in citizen science, which one day will lead to publishable data that they can be proud of for their entire lives.

Garbage collection along Horseford Creek at Glenn C. Hilton Jr. Memorial Park. Courtesy of Emily Whiteley

Since 2009, my students have contributed over 20,000 service hours to their community. Seeing the faces of my students after they have completed hard, physical labor to beautify and restore an ecologically sensitive area is priceless. As I work alongside my students, they also see what real teamwork is like and that instructors are normal people, just like them.

Emily Whiteley

Emily Whiteley is a faculty member in the science department at Catawba Valley Community College. Born in Michigan, she moved to North Carolina in 1989. Whiteley knew she was going to be a biologist by the age of 4 and has never wavered in her passion for nature, life, and the outdoors.