Geography 101 is not one of those college courses that immediately grabs one’s attention. For most, it is simply another three hours closer to a degree, a bridge to cross along the way to a recognition of higher learning. Few would expect their life to be changed in a first year geography survey class….right? And often the teaching of those classes is the begrudging grunt-work of professors who would rather be working on a soon-to-be published article or research grant.....correct? Not necessarily.
Professor Dorn Van Dommelen has spent the last three years developing and implementing an interesting new take on the old Geography 101 theme at the University of Alaska-Anchorage. His “Local Places/Global Regions” class not only focuses on where people are in the world, but also on what development issues affect them and how they interact with their natural environment. In the words of student Heather Kelahan, “Throughout the course, Professor Van Dommelen elaborates on 7 key regions, describing their local conditions and problems. He then uses Heifer International case studies to provide possible solutions. Rather than studying the world form the top down, Prof. Van Dommelen believes in exploring how individual families and communities live in different parts of the world, then asking the students to use this knowledge to form a broader context….Prof. Van Dommelen is able to provide students with possible solutions, thus a great deal of hope for the future.”
Another aspect of the class is the agreement that students will engage in some form of a service-learning project in the community. Students are asked to teach others in their community about Heifer or the work of another approved NGO. These projects bridge the gap between the classroom and the community, teaching and being taught. These projects have ranged from giving a presentation at a local school, hosting a fundraising event and organizing a Heifer movie night, to staffing a Heifer information table at an event. After completing the class, students have the opportunity to become a CESA (Community Engaged Student Assistant) and act as mentors to students currently enrolled in the class.
In addition to the Local Places/Global Regions class, Dorn was also instrumental in forming a Heifer International Club on campus. As Heifer Club member Heather Kelahan puts it, “Prof. Van Dommelen was key to the club’s founding and to its continued success. Dorn helps inspire and connect the club to both community and campus events that relate to our goals and interests.” Dorn maintains that inspiring his students to take action through the Heifer club and the service learning projects has been his greatest accomplishment as a Heifer volunteer.
Dorn also lead a Heifer Study Tour with some of his students to visit Heifer communities in China last spring. His strongest memory from that trip? “The most sublime moment of the trip, for me, came when we were picking tea above a small village. The women, who were our instructors, broke out in traditional tea picking songs. There we were, people from two cultures, who literally and figuratively live a world apart, working together on a steep slope in a tea garden. It was magical.”
Dorn first got involved with Heifer when Rex Enoch, former manager of adult education, responded to Dorn’s e-mail asking for more information about the organization. Dorn sent “many, many” e-mails to lots of non-governmental organizations in an effort to add real life examples, names, and places to the subject matter of his class but it was Heifer (and Rex) that responded quickly and earnestly. This began a very rich collaboration between Heifer and Dorn, the fruit of which can now be seen throughout the UAA campus, the city of Anchorage, and beyond.
When not inspiring a new generation of Alaskan paradigm shifters, Dorn lives “off-grid” (hauling water, splitting wood, etc.) with his wife Diane and their children, Lang, Eve, and Puck. Dorn is also a baker and brewer.