Growing into its own

Caroline Edwards (left) and Linda Willup will graduate Friday from the Northwest Indian College's four-year bachelor’s degree program, native environmental science. They stand in the 13 Moons Community Garden behind the school, which acts as a hands-on learning tool for students. Frank Varga / Skagit Valley Herald

SWINOMISH INDIAN TRIBAL COMMUNITY — Friday marks a milestone for the Swinomish branch of the Northwest Indian College.

Three students will graduate from the school’s first four-year bachelor’s degree program, native environmental science.

The program was accredited in 2010 and allows students to craft their coursework according to their interests, if they meet minimum requirements.

Caroline Edwards, for example, went for a communication and outreach focus.

Currently the assistant editor for the Swinomish tribal newsletter, she melded her talents for the environment and communication and could possibly leverage her degree to work for the tribal planning department, she said.

Linda Willup works as a liaison to tribal students and families at La Conner High School and plans to put her education to work by helping to incorporate native environmental education into the students’ science curriculum.

The school and its environmental science program received a boost last summer when the First Nation Development Institute granted the college $45,000 to develop a community garden that would act as a learning tool for students, as well as a place where community members could learn to grow their own food.

Since last fall, the “13 Moons” garden has grown to bear blueberries, elderberries, huckleberries, medicinal herbs, squash and several other crops traditional to the indigenous diet.

Willup worked with the garden during the recent winter quarter, and the hands-on experience taught her how native agriculture fits into environmental sustainability, she said.

It also helped connect her to the garden.

Willup, who was at the garden Wednesday, gazed at a honeycrisp apple tree she helped plant.

“We feel like we’re personally responsible for this little tree, here,” she said. “For our lifetimes it’ll be something we’re connected to.”

Willup credits science teacher Jessica Gigot for engaging the students, as well.

“Having never known anything about gardening before, she brought us into the world of what sustainable gardening is,” she said.

Willup and Edwards both said Northwest Indian College’s native environmental science program marked personal transformations in their lives and enhanced their careers.

Willup, a La Conner resident married to a Swinomish tribal member, earned an associate’s degree in Native American studies in 2007 from the school. When she found out the bachelor of science degree in native environmental science was accredited, she knew it would be a fitting continuation of her education.

“It was an amazing life change for me,” she said.

Edwards, a Swinomish tribal member living in Mount Vernon, found the program at a time when she felt stuck in her education.

She went to Skagit Valley College after high school, but didn’t fit in there, she said.

“I kind of felt a little uncomfortable,” Edwards said. “I couldn’t relate to anybody.”

She transferred to Northwest Indian College in Swinomish and finished her associate degree there. When she learned of the new four-year degree, she took some required classes and joined the program.

“We just kind of pulled each other along,” she said of her tightly-knit classmates.

Gigot hopes to continue securing grants that will further develop the community garden and the native environmental science program.

Eventually, she hopes the college can grow food on more spacious agricultural land and allow community members to rent space at the garden site.

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