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Posed photo of an interdisciplinary team of faculty members will administer the Gulf Scholars Program

An interdisciplinary team of faculty members will administer the Gulf Scholars Program on Auburn's Campus. From left to right: Lisa Kensler from the College of Education, José Vasconcelos Neto of Civil Engineering, Rebecca Retzlaff of Community Planning and Academic Sustainability, Christopher Anderson of the College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment, Natalia Ruiz-Junco of Sociology, Amna Salman of Building Science and Community Planning graduate student Hailey Davis.

As a land-grant institution, Auburn University is committed to outreach that improves the lives of others through education, research and service, and a new grant is about to focus some of those efforts on the Gulf of Mexico region.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine have awarded Auburn $550,000 over the next five years to establish a Gulf Scholars Program (GSP) on campus. The National Academies offer GSP funding to institutions across the Southeast to work toward innovative solutions to the most pressing environmental, health, energy and infrastructure challenges in the Gulf region.

The GSP was developed in response to the rapid population growth among Southeastern coastal regions in recent decades. In many areas, this explosion in growth has resulted in increased construction, urbanization and environmental impacts, as well as a larger population prone to natural hazards like floods. The GSP aims to mitigate these impacts and increase access to affordable housing, emergency preparedness, economic development and ecosystem protection.

As a GSP institution, Auburn will fund the development of classes and research that focus on Gulf sustainability issues across a wide range of disciplines, including social science, natural science, engineering, arts, design and the humanities. Rebecca Retzlaff, director of the Academic Sustainability Program and a professor in the Community Planning Program, said the GSP approached faculty in the College of Liberal Arts about applying because of the need for sustainability to have a strong social science perspective.

“A lot of students think of sustainability as having only to do with the environment, like recycling or solar panels or water quality, so the GSP is interested in bringing fields that don’t traditionally see a fit with sustainability into this program,” Retzlaff said. “They’re specifically looking to incorporate sustainability in the arts, humanities and social sciences as well as natural sciences and engineering. Every person can contribute to sustainability no matter what their discipline is.”

While Retzlaff is spearheading the program on campus, she will be assisted by faculty members Natalia Ruiz-Junco of Sociology, Christopher Anderson of the College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment, José Vasconcelos Neto of Civil Engineering, Amna Salman of Building Science and Lisa Kensler from the College of Education. The team also will work with Curtis Burney, a biology instructor at Southern Union State Community College (SUSCC) in Opelika, Alabama, and Community Planning student Hailey Davis, who serves as the program’s Graduate Research Assistant.

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Beginning in fall 2024, 10 Auburn students will be named as Gulf Scholars each year, and they will receive $1,000 per year, as well as $500 to put toward completing a Gulf Impact Project with a community partner. As part of the Path to the Plains program, two SUSCC students also will be named as Gulf Scholars, and they will receive additional funding and full tuition for their GSP independent study programs.

“One of the innovative things about our partnership with Southern Union is that our Path to the Plains students will enter Auburn with a peer group that’s already been established through classes and co-curricular activities. It will really set them up for success,” Retzlaff said.

The grant also will be used for the creation of a Gulf Faculty Fellows program, which will fund 10 faculty members per year to add Gulf sustainability issues to new or existing classes. Each Gulf Scholar will be paired with a faculty member from a different but similar discipline to guide them through their community impact project. The GSP grant money also will fund projects like field trips, visiting speakers, outreach projects, student conference travel and other co-curricular activities for students.  

On Auburn’s campus, the GSP will be administered by the Auburn Academic Sustainability Program and will receive support from the Biggio Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning, the Miller Writing Center and the Office of Sustainability. While field trips to the Gulf Coast will be part of the program, the Biggio Center will make learning about the Gulf Coast much easier with the development of tech-savvy teaching tools. These virtual reality and extended reality teaching materials will give students a classroom experience comparable to exploring the Gulf region in person.

“We wanted to use all the resources on campus, so we’re using teaching resources from Biggio, and the Office of Sustainability is doing a change agentry workshop series,” Retzlaff said. “The Writing Center has developed a writing competition for sustainability, and we’ll work with the e-portfolio team and the science communication program there. We are hoping our Gulf Scholars will also apply for Auburn’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program for their community impact projects.”

Before they finish their time as Gulf Scholars, the students will pair with community partners to complete projects focused on Gulf sustainability.

“Paring students with community partners is beneficial for both,” Retzlaff said. “Students get practical experience in sustainability and make professional contacts that may lead to future employment opportunities, and the community partners will get new ideas and become involved in education at Auburn.”

Retzlaff says several community partners have already signed on to work with Auburn students, including agritech company Shipshape Urban Farms, the non-profit Energy Alabama, the South Alabama Land Trust, the Alabama Coastal Foundation and the City of Loxley, Alabama.

“As a land-grant institution, outreach is what we do,” Retzlaff said. “The GSP includes all the components of our status as a land-grant college. We have interdisciplinary teaching, research and outreach, and we’re excited to use all the great existing resources we have on campus and the funding from the National Academies to expand sustainability education at Auburn.”