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During the fall of her first year, in 2017, Arynne Wegryn-Jones “converted” her anthropological archaeology course to Honors. An Honors conversion means enriching a mainstream course with added academic rigor and also requires regular meetings with the faculty member. For Arynne, Dr. Lisa Young’s course, titled “The Future of Food at the University of Michigan,” was not just an ideal Honors conversion, but a key moment in her college career.
Arynne took the course because she is a foodie, but it added what became the second central theme of her college career: sustainability. A microbiology major with a minor in sustainable food systems, Arynne is also one of the first U-M students to pursue Honors in Engaged Liberal Arts.
HELA is a new path to graduating with Honors. Instead of writing a conventional research monograph, students integrate rigorous academic work with leadership or civic engagement activities.
Arynne’s project, to put it simply, is trash. Specifically food waste.
To put it a bit more precisely, Arynne’s project explores the culture of composting at U-M. Thanks to efforts by thoughtful students, university staff — especially in dining services — U-M has been fostering awareness about composting on campus. Improved education, compostable food containers, and widely accessible composting bins alongside recycling and landfill receptacles make it quite easy even for the less committed to reduce their contribution to landfills. (Honors Program events, too, aim at 0% landfill waste.)
Even education and convenience don’t work overnight, though, and that is exactly what Arynne’s project focuses on. She is studying whether and how education and the ease of composting affect the attitudes and behavior of the 1,150 mainly first-year students in South Quad. This requires surveys, and Arynne is able to take advantage of U-M’s legacy as the world’s pre-eminent university for survey research. But surveys alone don’t get at behavior as reliably as observing behavior does. Here, Arynne, who is also a manager in MDining in South Quad, will do what most social scientists might be squeamish about: waste audits. In other words, dumpster diving: Arynne and her collaborators from the U-M Planet Blue Student Leaders’ team will analyze how well students use waste containers in South Quad. They do this audit twice, once at the beginning of the academic year and once at the end, to see how well education affects behavior over time.
Her HELA project allows Arynne to connect her interest in food, her “subtly environmentalist” upbringing at home — Arynne’s mother used rags instead of paper towels and reused food containers instead of buying Tupperware — and the academic curriculum she began discovering in Dr. Young’s course in 2017. An ideal Honors experience emerges out of students’ own passion and curiosity, is catalyzed by their coursework and civic engagement, and allows, at the end, students to claim ownership of their college experience. Arynne Wegryn-Jones is doing it for both herself and for the planet, and so providing an exemplar for others.