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August 31, 2011

Make-a-difference majors: State approves new NIU degrees in environmental studies and community leadership and civic engagement

Christopher McCord
Christopher McCord

Reed Scherer
Reed Scherer

Judith Hermanson
Judith Hermanson

DeKalb, Ill. — Northern Illinois University is launching two new bachelor degree programs, both of which will appeal to students who seek careers that will make a difference in the world around them.

The Illinois Board of Higher Education earlier this month approved the new interdisciplinary majors—one in environmental studies and the other in community leadership and civic engagement. Both areas of study play to NIU faculty strengths and aim to produce graduates in areas of expanding societal need.

Courses are being offered to students this fall.

NIU’s environmental studies major will provide students with broad-based knowledge of  key 21st century environmental issues, such as climate change, environmental  policy, water conservation and development of alternative energies. Program graduates will be prepared to meet environmental and energy challenges via  careers in industry, small business, academic research, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and federal, state and local governments.

The community leadership and civic engagement degree program—one of the few of its kind nationwide—will provide training to students who will lead, work for and collaborate with NGOs, also known as nonprofit organizations.  Within the major, emphases will be offered in advocacy, enterprise, the environment, global engagement and the arts and humanities.

“The new majors grew out of NIU strategic planning efforts and represent areas of study where there is high student interest and emerging employer needs, both within our region and nationwide,” said Christopher McCord, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “NIU also has a particular wealth of faculty expertise in these areas.”

Environmental studies

The environmental studies program is an example of NIU being ahead of the curve. Just this month, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a new law to further Illinois’ leadership in the green industry and help ensure even stronger collaboration on sustainability issues between the state and its colleges and universities.

NIU’s colleges of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Engineering and Engineering Technology led development of the environmental studies major, first establishing the Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability and Energy. The institute, launched last year, fosters multidisciplinary student and faculty research and engagement and oversees the academic major, as well as the revamped environmental studies minor.

Program courses are taught by faculty from four separate NIU colleges, representing numerous departments, including anthropology, biology, engineering, geography, geology, history, law, philosophy, political science, technology and other fields.

Students will learn to apply foundational and theoretical knowledge from engineering, the humanities and the natural and social sciences to current environmental issues and policies. Eventually, NIU intends to offer graduate studies in the subject area as well.

“So many young people are interested in environmental and sustainability issues nowadays, and more companies are seeing the need to hire employees who have knowledge and skills in subjects related to the environment, sustainability and energy, so we know the demand is out there,” said Geology Professor Reed Scherer, who was recently named director of the NIU Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability and Energy.

“In recent days, we’ve had students flocking to the program, despite the fact that it had not been formally announced,” he added. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we have 100 majors within the first two years.”

Scherer said the NIU program is unique, in part because the university location provides an extraordinary living laboratory.

“Most Illinois universities are located in urban or rural settings,” he said. “However, NIU is positioned in a unique transition area, at a crossroads between urban to suburban and exurban to rural. We address global and national issues, but a wide range of environmental and sustainability issues exist right in our back yard, providing students with a wealth of engagement opportunities.”

Community leadership and civic engagement (CLCE)

The colleges of Business and Liberal Arts and Sciences led the development of NIU’s Center for NGO Leadership and Development, or NGOLD, which was launched last year to oversee the community leadership and civic engagement major and to facilitate faculty and student research.

“This is a tremendously exciting interdisciplinary degree program that will engage students’ passions,” said Professor Judith Hermanson, director of NGOLD. “There are only a few undergraduate majors like this in the United States, so NIU is very much at the forefront. We’ve already had a lot of interest from students through the ‘grapevine,’ as prior to the IBHE approval we have not been able to advertise it formally.”

Hermanson said the degree will appeal to students “who want to make a difference” through public service in the non-profit, government and business sectors.

“Businesses are recognizing the value of social entrepreneurship. They’re looking not only at shareholder value but also stakeholder value, which includes how businesses can make a positive impact on employee and community well-being,” she said.

Community leadership and civic engagement courses will be taught by faculty from the NGOLD Center and a wide range of disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, economics and NIU’s nationally ranked business and public administration programs.

The major will include a strong hands-on learning component. Hermanson said a CLCE service learning class has already been successfully piloted. It requires students to work with area nonprofit organizations to develop solutions to real-world challenges.

NIU students in the pilot course last year worked with Elwood House, Tails Humane Society, Hope Haven, the RAMP Center for Independent Living, 4-C and other organizations.

“The students work in teams to address issues identified by local nonprofits,” Hermanson said. “At the semester’s end, they make formal presentations to the organizations, as if consultants presenting their recommendations to a client. This model has been well received, both by students, who gain understanding and knowledge they can apply, and the organizations, which get real benefits from the students’ work.”

For more information on the community leadership and civic engagement major, contact Judith Hermanson at (815) 753-4410 or ngoldcenter@niu.edu. For more information on the environmental studies major, contact either Reed Scherer at (815) 753-9381 or Reed@niu.edu or Ruthann Yeaton at (815) 753-6563 or ryeaton@niu.edu.

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Media Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Media & Public Relations
Phone: 815-753-3635
Email: tparisi@niu.edu