Connecting the Garden to the Classroom and Social Change

It’s 10:45 a.m. and alumna Marlena Nip (‘14) is surrounded by figs, grapefruit, limes, oranges and smiling young faces in the edible garden at Phillis Wheatley Community School in New Orleans. Nip is a garden educator with Schoolyard New Orleans, a program where students engage in experiential learning through hands-on kitchen and garden classes. The garden provides a space for nutrition education, as well as a therapeutic change of pace from the classroom. It also teaches students in grades K-4 to appreciate the connection between them and the natural world, which is something Nip first became passionate about while majoring in political science and minoring in environmental studies at LMU.

While at LMU, Nip was introduced to volunteer work through an Alternative Break (AB) trip to Haiti. Tom King, assistant director, student engagement, became a mentor to Nip and sparked her interest in postgraduate service. After completing a course on human rights and international social justice taught by Jennifer Ramos, associate professor and director of international relations, Nip knew she wanted to give back with an organization working for social change.

After graduation, these aspirations became a reality when she landed a position as a Jesuit volunteer (JV) coordinator of the Food and Faith Initiative in Seattle, a program that is part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest (JVCNW). She went on to join FoodCorps, a national AmeriCorps program that places service members in limited-resource schools to build healthy food environments and knowledge. Nip’s service opportunities led to her current position at Phillis Wheatley Community School and also helped her grow personally and professionally in the areas of food justice, health and the environment.

Nip is invigorated by teaching and shares, “There is a joy that I cannot explain when I see a student pull a beet out of the ground and eat it raw, or when they enthusiastically introduce new vegetables to their families. It feels right to share my passions by educating and empowering others. Every person deserves access to fresh food, and as I see it, our system is failing to provide that opportunity.”

Over the next year, Nip is looking forward to helping students have more transformative experiences in the garden.

“The most special thing to me is being able to create a safe space for my students in the garden. If I can get students who struggle to focus inside of the classroom to thrive and feel safe in the garden, I will feel like I am making an impact. The garden has the potential to transform young students’ learning outcomes.”

Nip is incredibly grateful for her time at LMU, as it provided the foundation for her postgraduate opportunities. She credits LMU’s mission for shaping the woman she is today.

“Hearing the words, ‘men and woman for others’ resonated with me like nothing else ever had. After seeing immense poverty in Haiti and learning about the deep institutional racism that continues to persist in our society, pursuing a career in food justice was what made sense and felt meaningful. LMU prepared me to listen, build community and do what I can to alleviate the pains of poverty.”

Nip also emphatically encourages anyone who may be considering post-graduate service, to do it. “It humbles you, gives you new perspectives and makes you a more open-minded person. It also opens up unimaginable opportunities,” she says.

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