Nature of Life turns 20

For two decades, students have found community and forged their science identity through a one-of-a-kind program.
June 12, 2023

Incoming first-year College of Biological Sciences undergraduates share a singular experience. They board a bus full of strangers in St. Paul and travel more than 200 miles northwest to Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories for Nature of Life. The program is an introduction to college life like no other. Part summer camp, part boot camp, this rite of passage has it all, from forays to the field to collect specimens to instruction in how to sing the Rouser. Students play games, enjoy hearty home-cooked meals and share bug spray to repel the mosquitoes.

Over the years, Nature of Life has evolved from a four-day experience in the summer to a two-year program. Once back on campus, students are part of guilds — smaller cohorts of students — that meet each week for their first year. In their second year, Nature of Life moves online, emphasizing topics relevant to students at that stage, including how to find research opportunities, developing leadership skills and navigating mental health issues.

While the program has expanded, its purpose remains the same: to foster community and meet students where they are as they navigate their undergraduate experience.

How it all started

Before becoming dean of the college, Robert Elde, who led CBS from 1995 to 2014, was head of the University’s neuroscience graduate program. Inspired by a program for graduate students at the Marine Biological Laboratory — a storied field station located at Woods Hole in the southwestern corner of Cape Cod in Massachusetts — and familiar with the field station at Itasca, he hatched a plan to bring graduate students to the station for a five-week orientation. It was a hit.

The college began admitting first-year students for the first time in 1997. Looking to increase retention and graduation rates, Elde and college leaders began brainstorming ideas. Elde recalled the success of the graduate program at Itasca. A lightbulb went on and the idea for Nature of Life took shape.

“The goal was really to bring the faculty together, bring the students together, develop camaraderie, esprit de corps, a purpose,” says Elde, who, along with a handful of faculty and staff, worked to bring the program to fruition. The Nature of Life program checked all the boxes.

What started as a brief trip to Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories with a small group of incoming students has become a multi-year program. In 2003, the program evolved to include a semester back on campus, then another. Guilds were introduced as a way to provide students with a cohort of peers to remain in touch with over time. Biology Saves the World, which connects students with experienced scientists for a semester-long project, came into the frame to introduce students to a wide range of research.

Now, the Nature of Life program encompasses the first two years of the CBS experience. It provides students with timely support while giving students further along in their academic journey opportunities to develop their leadership skills as peer mentors and guild leaders. Last fall, Nature of Life held seven sessions for nearly 650 students and added an eighth guild to accommodate a record number of incoming students.

A sense of community

Part of the college’s reputation as a closeknit community within a much larger university comes from the intentional approach to community-building that happens at Nature of Life. Professor Deena Wassenberg, who has made the trek to Nature of Life at Itasca for the past 15 years, notes that context is a secret ingredient.

“Students get to learn some cool biology content in a fantastic setting,” says Wassenberg. “They get to meet faculty as their professors in their modules, but also as full humans who might struggle to make a s’more without burning the marshmallow, miss a serve in a volleyball game, or tell a funny story around a campfire.” Back on campus, students see their professors as more accessible.

If the experience at Itasca is a warm-up for what’s to come, the programming in the first and second year are a deep dive into how to achieve academic goals and navigate challenges. The philosophy of meeting students where they are infuses Nature of Life, which strives to connect students with resources when they need them.

“Nature of Life is this connection hub. We’re connecting you to other students within your year, or students within CBS or instructors or campus resources. Whatever type of connection you need, we try to hit it sometime during that year,” says Brittany Eich, Nature of Life’s program director. Eich came up through the ranks. She attended NOL as an incoming student, went on to become a peer mentor, and is a longtime staff member who stepped into her current role last year.

For Rob Kulhanek, who, like Eich, attended NOL and served as a peer mentor and then as a staff member for several years, the program also contributes to a shared identity as scientists.

“Incoming students are taken very seriously by the faculty and the college,” says Kulhanek. “They are made to understand that they are going to learn how to become a practicing professional in this sphere. It’s a huge departure from the rote memorization that happens in many high school science courses. Instead, at Nature of Life they do science right away.”

The start of Traditions

Meeting peers and faculty is one key ingredient. Learning about the community they are a part of is another. Enter Traditions.

“A critical aspect of a feeling of belonging to a community is enhanced by learning about the community, not just getting acquainted with some of the people, but also knowing about aspects of the community which knit it together,” says Emeritus Professor John S. Anderson. “Thus, the inclusion of Traditions was deemed a key part of the welcoming process.”

For the uninitiated, Traditions is a comprehensive overview of the University’s history and an introduction to aspects of campus life, including how to navigate the Gopher Way, which happens at Itasca each evening of the session.

“Probably the most impactful activity is learning the Minnesota Rouser. Peer mentors lead with gusto and the incoming students are challenged to ramp up their enthusiasm,” says Anderson. CBS students have earned a reputation as overachievers when it comes to singing the song at Convocation each fall because of their preparation at Nature of Life.

Anderson taught Traditions for 17 years — from the first sessions in 2003 until 2020. “Through more than 90 sessions over 6,000 students got their start in CBS at Nature of Life. It is of interest that retention and graduation rates have improved substantially with CBS rates among the best in the University,” says Anderson.

John Ward, a professor in Plant and Microbial Biology, has stepped into the role with gusto. A longtime NOL instructor, Ward now leads Traditions. “It’s important for helping incoming students become part of the CBS community,” says Ward.

Expecting the unexpected

Bringing hundreds of students to Itasca State Park is no small thing and can present unique challenges, including the occasional major storm. Case in point, a storm that hit the region in 2015 causing extensive damage throughout the park. Kulhanek notes that it was the final night of a Nature of Life session.

“There were so many downed trees over the road, no one could access the station. There was no electricity or water,” says Kulhanek. He and the NOL staff spent the night checking on students and assessing the damage. In the morning, despite the conditions, the kitchen staff made their way to the station. “They made hot breakfast sandwiches for everyone using the storage propane tanks and a grill. It was amazing.” Crews got to work removing the trees and the bus departed more or less on schedule. The power finally came on a few hours before the next group of students arrived.

The IBSL kitchen staff, led by Dawn Wannebo, prepares meals for hundreds of students. It’s a lot of work even without the complications of a power outage. Wannebo is passionate about sourcing much of the food they serve locally.

“Locally grown is a pet project of mine,” says Wannebo. “Starting in May with asparagus and rhubarb, June micro greens and lettuces. We really emphasize local strawberries in July! End of July through August sweet corn, peppers, lots of tomatoes, green beans, zucchini and potatoes. Every fall we get enough local wild rice to last for the following year. We use local beef and pork when we can get it.”

The Fellowship of the Shirt

The first day of fall semester can be daunting for incoming students, especially on the sprawling University of Minnesota campus. While it might be difficult to find a familiar face, identifying fellow CBS students is pretty easy. Just look for the maroon and gold tie-dye! “Tie-dye is easy to see,” says Robin Wright, former associate dean who led establishment of the program. “That was the goal. From there, the “Fellowship of the Shirt” emerged. The idea was that if you saw somebody with a Nature of Life shirt, you were honor bound to say hello to them.”

— Stephanie Xenos and Christine Hazuka