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Environmental educator

Posted 11:54 a.m. Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Kelly Sultzbach, an associate professor of English at UWL, has received the inaugural Prairie Springs Environmental Leadership Award for faculty. The award recognizes a UWL faculty member who is taking environmental action in the community and inspiring others to do the same.

Sultzbach receives inaugural Prairie Springs Environmental Leadership Award for faculty

One of Kelly Sultzbach’s clearest childhood memories is of a “gorgeous, glorious” pine tree in her neighbor’s yard.

After a storm one winter, the tree was so thoroughly coated with ice that its branches began to crack from the weight. To the young Sultzbach, it was as if this gorgeous giant were crying out for help.

Ever since, Sultzbach, an associate professor of English at UW-La Crosse, has felt a deep connection to and a personal responsibility for the environment.

Her efforts — from infusing her courses with environmental themes to volunteering with local organizations — has earned her the inaugural Prairie Springs Environmental Leadership Award for faculty.

“To be honored for this award was a surprise because I feel there’s such a strong community of people who are doing this work at UWL,” Sultzbach explains. “The strength of our university is that we have a lot of people working together, sharing resources, and it’s difficult to single out any one person.”

Sultzbach, who has a doctorate in British literature and environmental literature, says her background in English hasn’t been a deterrent to her exploring environmental science with her students.

To the contrary — her perspective as an English professor has been an asset. It allows her to approach issues such as climate change or environmental justice in a unique and informative way.

“This is where the sciences and humanities can work together,” she notes. “Science informs our expectations in literature, and speculative fiction helps the sciences by imagining the future and what kind of social responses we’ll see over time. Bringing together different disciplines can be really valuable.”

Rather than exploring the environment in the abstract, Sultzbach has developed assignments and learning opportunities with tangible, meaningful outcomes.

She started a “Coffee & Conservation” program in which students read works of climate fiction and lead discussion groups with local environmentalists.

She organized student-led hikes in collaboration with the La Crosse Parks & Recreation Department and the Aldo Leopold Society.

And she has volunteered with local grassroots and nonprofit organizations, including serving on the communications board for the Mississippi Valley Conservancy and writing articles for Conservancy publications.

Sultzbach’s ability to inspire others can also be seen in “Communicating Green,” a photographic research essay by former UWL student Carly Rundle-Borchert. Sultzbach and Associate Professor of Art Kathleen Hawkes mentored Rundle-Borchert throughout the project.

“Dr. Sultzbach’s work has contributed to environmental education and awareness in the area,” says Sam Cocks, chair of the Environmental Studies Program, “and has provided students, community members and local organizations with the opportunity to learn about and discuss environmental issues.”

But raising awareness is only half the battle. The sheer scale of the climate crisis has been known to inspire apathy — what Sultzbach refers to has “stuplimity.”

“It’s an emotional reaction to feeling powerless in the face of hyper objects that feel beyond our control,” she says. “It’s the boredom we feel when we’re overwhelmed by something that seems impossible or inevitable.”

The challenge for Sultzbach and other environmental educators is to cut through that apathy and convince others that hope is not lost. Even small victories and piecemeal progress, she says, are worth fighting for.

“We’re all part of a community working toward incremental change, a little at a time, and that’s where the hope comes from,” she says. “The hope has to come through our work.”

About the award

The Prairie Springs Environmental Leadership Awards, started this year, recognize a student and faculty member who are taking environmental action in the community, and inspiring others to do the same.

Recipients are selected by the Prairie Springs Endowment Fund Advisory Subcommittee, which considers the impact, scope and sustainability of each candidate’s accomplishments. Each winner receives $1,000. 

The awards are funded through the endowment fund created by Prairie Springs: The Paul Fleckenstein Trust. The fund also supports undergraduate student research, CSH Dean’s Distinguished Fellowships and internship opportunities that focus on environmental education, conservation and wildlife habitat protection.


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