Rachel Carson College: Training the green generation

UC Santa Cruz’s eighth college is a haven for sustainability-minded, environmentally conscious students hoping to lead and empower others

Rachel Carson College Provost Sue Carter
Rachel Carson College Provost Sue Carter
A mural of Rachel Carson completed by the Rachel Carson College Student Council
The Rachel Carson College mural project created by the RCC Student Council.
The College Eight rededication ceremony
Image taken during the College Eight rededication ceremony in fall 2016. Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta.

When College Eight changed its name to Rachel Carson College three years ago, it sent a bold and clear message to the campus community. 

Following the example of a pioneering environmentalist who sounded the warning of the harmful effects of pesticides, the college reaffirmed its commitment to a greener world. 

The renaming gift from the Helen and Will Webster Foundation recognizes Rachel Carson for her courageous writing, activism, and advocacy. That gift was an essential part of a $7 million package that established an endowment and a chair in ecology and environmental justice, providing students with a wealth of research and hands-on learning opportunities in perpetuity. 

Rachel Carson College, also known as RCC, has an extensive environmental history that predates the rededication. In fact, it never wavered from its theme of Environment and Society since its founding in 1972.  

But the recent renaming and endowment gave RCC a renewed and focused mission, which now includes experiential learning and additional program opportunities revolving around sustainable missions.

“There is a strong sense of community at Rachel Carson College, and programs are designed to support student leadership and empowerment,” said Tamara Ball, project scientist, academic coordinator, and lecturer at the college. “RCC students take initiative in creating organizations and implementing impactful projects that counteract the collective dysphoria surrounding environmental issues, while attracting broader involvement.” 

Honoring an environmental prophet 

Rachel Carson’s name first came to the spotlight when her controversial book, Silent Spring, published in 1962, ignited a nationwide discussion about chemical compounds in pesticides such as DDT. Her book exposed their devastating impacts on the environment.

“Just through the written word, Carson was able to communicate why these environmental changes were so important to the public,” said Sue Carter, Rachel Carson College provost and professor of physics. 

Carson showed that a single book could institute sweeping changes, Carter said. Carson’s book provoked a fierce backlash from the chemical industry, but her resilient quest to educate and inform the public led to the banning of DDT and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) a decade after her bestselling book was published, ultimately initiating the modern day environmental movement.

To symbolize the legacy she left behind, the artist Rachel Maryam Smith (Porter ‘18, history of art and visual culture) sculpted a bronze statue of Rachel Carson, which now resides in the RCC plaza. And most recently, the RCC Student Council completed the Rachel Carson mural project, which is displayed on the side of one of the buildings facing the dorms. 

Socially active, sustainability-minded 

Rachel Carson College students are a thriving and active group. 

“We are one of the more socially active colleges at UC Santa Cruz,” said Ryan Meckel (Rachel Carson '21, business management economics). “It’s almost its own little world.”

Meckel appreciates the intimacy of the college’s layout. 

“The dining hall, gym, and buildings are right there together instead of being spread out,” he said.  

The layout contributes to the social atmosphere; there is usually something going on in the plaza or grassy quads, from pop-up produce stands to impromptu volleyball and soccer matches.

All of this bustling activity kicks off during move-in week, when students are encouraged to build friendships and get involved in clubs and organizations throughout the college and on campus. The organizations based at Rachel Carson College, including the RCC Student Council, share a passion for green initiatives. They fund programs and take part in the college’s Earth Day celebration.

“The council and other organizations offered on campus all opened my eyes to how much students can do, and more importantly helped me realize that a lot of decisions are made in small groups,” said Rosa Guzman (Rachel Carson ‘21, mathematics).

This social activity and engagement helps students feel at home on campus.

“Finding their space in the first year carries over to the rest of their time at UC Santa Cruz,” said Ben Nissan, coordinator for residential education at Rachel Carson College. “It has a direct, positive impact on college retention.” 

Environment and Society

The rigorous RCC core course, taken in the first year, builds on the Environment and Society theme of the college, immersing students in the history of the environmental movement, climate change, food justice, and social and environmental justice. 

The 10-week course begins with students reading three critical chapters from Silent Spring, igniting conversations around environmental justice and society. 

The course ends with a research project. Students can focus on an environmental issue of their choice. The projects often involve argument and analysis, but even more importantly, students experience “what it means to be curious and be involved in inquiry through field observation,” noted Joy Hagen, Rachel Carson College lecturer and writing program liaison. 

Green-conscious programs

Rachel Carson College gives students plenty of opportunities to delve into environmental issues. While serving as a recent RCC provost, Ronnie Lipschutz, professor of politics, developed the sustainability studies minor, encouraging an interdisciplinary approach to sustainable project design and policy that balances the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and social science. 

Students can also apply for a chance to use the campus’s Sustainability Lab, also known as the S-lab, a special collaboration between Rachel Carson College and the Physical and Biological Sciences Department located on Science Hill. The S-lab provides students with space to work on projects of interest. Those who get approval must also undergo Environmental Health and Safety training to work in the lab.

“One of the advantages of the S-lab is that it’s not focused on research as much,” said Theo Kell (Rachel Carson '21, technology and information management). Students often partake in projects outside of their fields of study. 

Kell, along with fellow Rachel Carson student Meckel, formed the UC Santa Cruz Slugbotics team during their freshman year. The only underwater robotics engineering club on campus, Slugbotics garnered 300 sign-ups just this fall. The S-lab space and resources allowed the club to grow and succeed. 

Because of its green-conscious programs, Rachel Carson College tends to attract undergraduates who have a strong interest in spreading environmental consciousness and getting involved in environmental initiatives. But it also trains them as future organizers and leaders. 

Students leave RCC with a sense of empowerment. As Provost Carter said, “Even on the individual scale, you have the power to make a difference in society and the power to inspire others.”