Spotlight on a Westie

Spotlight on a Westie: Clara Hoffman

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Clara Hoffman

Class of 2021, Biology

Thetford Center, VT

Favorite Camp: A grassy crest of Starvation Ridge, north of Enterprise, Oregon


“I want to do good in the world, and I want to have a positive effect and have some sort of lasting change, but also to make the world a more beautiful place.”

The Dream, 1: Be involved in cutting-edge scientific research

Clara Hoffman has already had an impact as a scientist on the frontier of biological research. In high school, on the semester program at the Island School, she conducted marine studies of conch and her results were integrated into the fishing policy of the Bahamas. Later, at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, Clara worked with ancient microorganisms found in the permafrost of the Arctic Circle and the microbial bioremediation of munitions and petroleum on military sites.

The Dream, 2: Translate that research through art in writing and photography

The Island School also cultivated a love for writing in Clara. Assignments centered on “natural history writing” and vivid descriptions of reef ecosystems. Embarking on Semester in the West, the writing of dispatches and other sensory scene descriptions has been Clara’s favorite part of the curriculum, but she admits to feeling insecure around some of the more experienced writers on the trip. Clara’s taken this in a positive direction: “This has made me want to be a better writer more than anything that’s ever happened in my life.”

The Dream, 3: Communicate in a way that is impactful to non-scientists

Clara balances a scientist’s mindset with a rural worldview, a talent not common in the West. Thinking of Wallowa County rancher Todd Nash, a passionate anti-wolf activist, she says “I feel for you, and I can still disagree with your opinions.” This consideration runs both ways, as she found wolf biologist Gabe Spence’s perspective on wolf conservation (“it’s just the moral thing to do”) disturbingly inconsiderate of ranching values. Clara’s deep-rooted belief is that if these two people sat down with one another, “there could be some interesting dialogues. There are a lot of problems that can be solved with plain communication.”

‘Plain’ is key in that sentiment. Researcher John Williams has worked on the wolf predation problem, and communicates his results in easy-to-read papers full of understandable charts and images, but refuses to acknowledge his bias toward ranchers. Recognition of one’s biases and complicity is key to communication, Clara believes. “Can’t you try to understand something that you don’t have experience in?”

By Mitch Cutter

Photo by Abby Hill

Spotlight on a Westie: Aliza Anderson-Diepenbrock

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Aliza Anderson-Diepenbrock

Class of 2021, Rhetoric Studies

Orcas, WA

Favorite Camp: The slickrock of Comb Ridge, near Bluff, UT

“I’m not sure that I expected such constant contradiction.”

Applying to Whitman, Aliza Anderson-Diepenbrock never truly considered Semester in the West: a cool program, but not fitting into the “Aliza Plan,” which involved psychology and a heavy interest in the politics of incarceration. In her first year at Whitman, she took that plan in a new direction, one that included Semester in the West. After a high school experience largely based on international travel, Aliza felt it was necessary look critically at the issues taking place close to home. Aliza saw this program as an opportunity to learn in what ways she, as a “Citizen of the West,” can step into the radical work that needs to take place.  

The West is full of contradictions: from kind ranchers who endorse feedlots and the brutal killing of wolves, to wild places that are no longer wild, Aliza found herself caught between differing perspectives of equally likeable people and the paradoxes of conservation. Semester in the West presents speakers one after the other, often with little time to reflect on how they align with one another. Aliza has found her own method to sort out this madness, via active listening that incorporates, “empathy and critique at the same time.” Holding her own core beliefs closely, she looks for the problematic power structures that both our group and guest speakers perpetuate. However, she does so with the intent of still learning from these people and experiences.

Author Amy Irvine cast this tactic as one not only of evaluating others, but oneself as well. Amy spoke on the value of making one’s own voice heard, but also of making sure to “find ways in which you are complicit” in injustice and environmental degradation. This stuck with Aliza as she examined her own hypocrisies. In finishing Amy’s writing assignment, a comment letter on the Draft Management Plan for Bears Ears National Monument, she asked herself, “is this really for me to speak on?” After time focused on engaging critically in this complex part of our country, Aliza decided that while her privileged voice should not be the loudest, she can use it to speak, and in small ways like this, insist upon change.

By Mitch Cutter

Photo by James Baker

Spotlight on a Westie: David Dregallo

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David Dregallo

Class of 2020, Environmental Studies—Sociology

Middlebury, VT

Favorite Campsite: a restored ranch house overlooking the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, at Kane Ranch, Arizona

When David Dregallo applied to Whitman College, he knew he wanted to embark on Semester in the West. There were many other things outstanding about the College: the Environmental Studies department, the men’s Ultimate team, and the chance to reside in a beautiful place far from home. David set SITW as his goal, and came to Whitman to achieve it. This sort of purposeful existence defines him: while on the program, David started looking for new places to live after graduation, comparing each to his home in Vermont. One step after another.

Early on our journey, David realized that the shifting and constantly mobile nature of the program did not fit his preferences. He describes himself as “much more of a sedentary person”, and the whirl of locations and speakers was bewildering. Caught up in his preexisting belief in the grazing methods of Allan Savory, David was surprised to find ecologists like Mary O’Brien who vilify that man and his methods. These differences in opinion are impossible to reconcile, so he followed the advice of collaborative group mediator Steven Daniels: find the areas of agreement, the connections between people and places. Collaborative efforts thrive on these small victories, which David claims is thanks to “respect for people’s ways of life.”

Quickly, David recognized that the passion driving Yellowstone conservationists to protect bison and wolves also fuels volunteers for the Sonoran Institute in Mexico, removing invasive tamarisk trees. These places are thousands of miles apart, and yet there is a strong desire in each to, as David puts it, “make it the best place.” David sees these efforts not as some conscious effort to “fix” the past wrongs of development, but as an innate love for a location and a community.

David seeks to replicate this path in his own life after Whitman. While many environmentalists tend to jump into issues, he “wouldn’t want to go to a place just to fix it.” Still looking for his place (Wallowa County, Northern New Mexico, and Tom Miner Basin were all close, but not perfect), David plans to choose his cause once he arrives, but no sooner. One step after another.

By Mitch Cutter

Photos by Darby Williams and Emma Jones

Spotlight on a Westie: Juan Pablo Liendo Molina

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Juan Pablo Liendo

Class of 2021, Environmental Studies—Politics

Caracas, Venezuela

Favorite Campsite: a grassy meadow among ponderosa pine, overlooking Winthrop, Washington, and the Methow Valley

The road to the American West was long for Juan Pablo, or JP, as everyone knows him. Born in Venezuela, his school experience took him to UWC Robert Bosch College (UWCRBC) in Germany, then to its sister school in China, UWC Changshu, as a resident assistant and student mentor. JP was guided to Whitman College by its Environmental Studies department and its reputation as a sustainable school.

Sustainability has interested JP for a long time. Venezuela is a country largely dependent on its reserves of oil, and while that has lent the nation immense “environmental privilege,” Venezuela has not sought to diversify their sources of energy. In contrast, Germany is well-regarded as among the world’s leaders in sustainable development; the mission of UWCRBC is to teach “how technology can contribute to sustainable, ecologically responsible development”

In light of these experiences, JP was disappointed with the reality of sustainable efforts at Whitman: no compost, few sources of renewable energy, and widespread waste of energy and food. JP wondered to himself: “What can I do myself?”

With SITW, JP has found that Whitman’s behaviors are in connection with towns and rural places of America. Environmental degradation is prevalent in the forests, plains, and deserts of the West, but there is also a blueprint for JP’s future in fixing these problems. From Kent Woodruff, a retired ecologist in the Methow Valley of Washington, found the importance of community: Kent was only able to achieve his long list of accomplishments with the help of a diverse group of others. JP realized that, to truly effect change in the world, “You cannot do it on your own.” The Sonoran Institute’s heavy emphasis on community outreach in the Colorado River Delta also impacted him, providing “proof that I can do powerful work myself if I have local support.”

JP doesn’t see himself as a future activist, but as a player in the political system here in the US, or home in Venezuela. Among his dreams is forming a trade & political bloc of Latin American countries, similar to the EU, since there are such strong bonds between nations in that region. Certainly, if Juan Pablo makes that happen, he won’t have forgotten that “communities are incredibly important to environmental and political change.”

By Mitch Cutter

Photo by Clara Hoffman

Spotlight on a Westie: Cindy Abrams

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Cindy Abrams

Class of 2020, Environmental Studies—Politics

Portland, OR

Favorite Campsite: Stanley Crawford’s Home in Dixon, NM

Plenty happened on the night of November 8th, 2016. For one, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. For another, at Saint Andrews University in Scotland, Cindy Abrams’ New Zealander friend was laughing and joking at what had transpired across the Atlantic in America. Feeling “demoralized and powerless,” Cindy decided to repurpose her life. After leaving the US to study international relations in a foreign nation far from home, with few intentions of ever returning home, she started thinking about how to make an impact domestically, rather than internationally.

That new direction eventually took Cindy to Whitman College as a transfer student. An early interest in environmental politics convinced her to apply for Semester in the West, but a Spring Break service trip to the Navajo Reservation showed that her voice belongs in the American West. The student group’s Navajo hosts pleaded with students to call attention to ongoing pollution issues in the area related to a coal mine, saying, “We want our voices to be heard and echoed by you.”

Taking this plea to heart, Cindy has dedicated her time on Semester in the West to finding her own voice as a writer. Through the Epiphany writing assignments and writing workshops with guest authors, Cindy has rediscovered story telling as a creative outlet. Writing for journalist Ben Goldfarb, she realized that until then, she “hadn’t had fun writing in ten years.” The further away from traditional academic writing the assignment got, the more fun she had. In the midst of one of poet Ann Walka’s creative writing sessions, Cindy remembers, “I didn’t want to stop.”

Cindy sees this newfound interest leading to a career in publishing or environmental journalism. Goldfarb’s description of life as a journalist was particularly captivating: conducting interviews, traveling to the issues, and talking to someone new every day. In short, exactly what she’s done on Semester in the West.

By Mitch Cutter

Photos by James Baker and Juan Pablo Liendo

Spotlight on a Westie: Nina Moore

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Nina Moore

Class of 2020, Environmental Studies—Biology

Freeport, ME

Favorite Campsite: A dusty road outside Jackpot, NV

Nina Moore wants to talk to you. She wants to share just a part of what she’s seen in Maine, Indonesia, and, now, the American West. A seeker of adventure constantly looking for new things to do, Nina struck out from her home in Maine after high school to work in Jackson Hole, WY for Grand Teton National Park as a summer trail crewmember.

After growing up on the east coast, Nina chose Whitman College because it gave her “a backdoor to the West,” which, even after three years, still feels novel. In Walla Walla, Nina enjoys hiking and skiing in the adjacent “kinda mysterious” Blue Mountains and playing on the women’s lacrosse team.

On Semester in the West, Nina has found joy in the simple things: “Where I am, and who I’m with.” Similarly, simple and pure passion for a place or a field is what inspires Nina. Ecologists Janet Millard and Paul Arbetan, in particular, fascinate her and have made her realize that following one’s passion is worth the accompanying pain of things not always going the right way.

Taking Janet as an example, Nina knows that running one of the Northwest’s most important raptor migration centers at Chelan Ridge is a difficult job with ephemeral government funding. So why do it? Nina found a glimmer of the answer in the primal eyes of a sharp-shinned hawk in hand. It takes a “big-hearted person” with the right set of values to connect with a raptor, but it is these instinctive moments of connection with another species or a place that make bureaucratic infighting for resources a bearable chore.

Through SITW, Nina’s attention has been drawn to communicating the important of places like Chelan Ridge. That story starts with endangered raptors, but ends with the people like Janet who work there; combining ecology and heartfelt stories of human passion. She hopes to start that work as soon as the program ends, coming to her spring semester classes with ecological principles, vignettes of environmental enthusiasm, and the knowledge gleaned from the amber eyes of a sharp-shinned hawk to share.

By Mitch Cutter

Photo by Jessie Brandt