Transcription of Unity: Education, Search & Rescue #287

Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle, and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Brunswick, Maine. Show summaries are available at Here are some highlights from this week’s program.
Melik Peter Khoury: The idea of what does this degree… what is it worth? It becomes as important as going to college. With the changing demographics within the United States, first generation Americans, an increase in demographic changes, the very value of what it means to go to college is changing.
Mick Womersley: We can provide a large number of students that are sufficiently trained and sufficiently fit, and the fit part is perhaps the most important so that the Warden Service doesn’t have to worry about having a bunch of students in the woods, that they’ve got the background, they’ve got the training, they’ve got the map reading, the navigation, and they’re young and agile, and they can clamber over rocks and gullies and trees and rivers and streams without necessarily getting hurt as easily as I would.
Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, and you are listening to Love Maine Radio, Show #287, Unity: Education, Search, and Rescue, airing for the first time on Sunday, March 19, 2017. For more than half a century, Unity College has provided a high quality, innovative, and yet practical education to students in the field of environmental sustainability. Today, we speak with Unity College President Dr. Melik Peter Khoury and with Professor Mick Womersley, faculty advisor to the Unity College Search and Rescue team. Thank you for joining us.
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Lisa Belisle: My next guest is Dr. Melik Peter Khoury who is president of Unity College. He started at Unity in 2012 as the senior vice president for external affairs, following positions at Upper Iowa University, Culver-Stockton College, Paul Smith’s College, and the University of Maine at Fort Kent, among other places I understand. You’ve been all over the place.
Melik Peter Khoury: Yes, it’s been a wonderful career in higher education.
Lisa Belisle: You started your whole life out, your whole life journey, in Sierra Leone.
Melik Peter Khoury: Yes. I was actually born in a small country called Sierra Leone in West Africa. I grew up in a small country called the Gambia, which is known as the Smiling Coast of West Africa, to a Lebanese father and an English mother and spent a little bit of time in England before coming to the States, so I’ve been all over the world.
Lisa Belisle: Why did you decide that higher education was your calling?
Melik Peter Khoury: Growing up in West Africa, the perspective of higher education, or education as a whole, is so different from that in the United States. It’s such a privilege that only a few get the ability to get an education. Once I got the ability to get an education, I realized that I would like to dedicate my life to making sure that anyone who wants an education, who deserves an education, should get one. Looking at the higher education system in the United States, it’s probably one of the most forward-thinking industries in the world, and what better way to spend your life than to continue to work within that industry to make sure that anybody who wants an education gets one?
Lisa Belisle: What is it specifically about higher education that appeals to you?
Melik Peter Khoury: Absolutely. I think that as a society, the world is getting smaller. With the advent of technology, the whole idea of global citizens, it becomes very important that in addition to learning how to do a skill, an individual needs to understand where their place is in the world. Being able to communicate, cultural competency, and so the idea of a well-rounded individual comes as part of higher education. The liberal arts and sciences are a really good base for everyone who wants education. You get that, you learn a skill, and you become a well-rounded individual who is a global citizen and able to basically function in a world that’s getting smaller, where cultural competency is a key element in basically the survival of our planet.
Lisa Belisle: Unity is a very unique place. It’s a very unique college. It’s only been around for….
Melik Peter Khoury: 51 years.
Lisa Belisle: So it’s relatively young. It’s in the center, roughly the center of Maine. You have really quite the diversity of things that you offer students for such a small place.
Melik Peter Khoury: Yeah, I mean, we are America’s environmental college. Our entire curriculum is based on the very concept of sustainability science, which means that everything we do is designed to be relevant in the green economy. We understand that no matter what you’re going to do in life, there is nothing, no job that you are going to take, no career that you are going to have, that does not interact with our natural resources. Whether it’s in agriculture, in energy, in conservation law, in policy, we understand that our students need to have that based on education.
We focus on the environmental sciences. We are very proud of that, and we’ve got an array of majors within that, but our job is to make sure that these students grow up to be… I love saying this, global citizens, and that’s our mission in life. It’s adding that concept of theory and application, the liberal arts and sciences and a career into a student, whether they’re going to go to grad school or get a job in their industry.
Lisa Belisle: What type of student do you tend to attract to Unity College?
Melik Peter Khoury: Sure. Right now, we have a national draw. About 70% of our student population is from out of state, but predominantly anybody who really wants to work in the environmental career. We’ve got a lot of conservation law enforcement students, captive wildlife care education students, outdoor recreation, adventure therapy. A lot of first generation Americans, first generation students, sorry, and folks who really want to be, kind of, work in the tactile environment. We’re highly experiential. We’re highly immersive. We really believe that our students need to not just learn from a textbook with the hard sciences, but apply that within the field. A lot of students who really want kind of that immersion of both the theory and the application get to be attracted to Unity College.
Lisa Belisle: When you describe a first generation student, you mean a student who is the first in their family to go to college.
Melik Peter Khoury: Yes. About 85% of our student population actually are first generation students. They’re the first to go to college in this field. It’s actually a real feather in our cap as a private school. There is the misnomer about affordability, and we are very proud of the fact that compared to our peers, on the national scale, our tuition is very, very affordable. We give some good scholarships for those who want to come there, but most importantly, the value that families have in investing in going to a college like Unity is paid off because if you were to look at our alums, we are very proud of them, working in the federal… in federal, state jobs, as entrepreneurs, and so families understand that going to a private school, they get a high touch, highly immersive education and it’s really applicable into an industry. Our placement rates into grad school, into getting to careers is quite high, which is a value proposition for us.
Lisa Belisle: Have you noticed over the time that you’ve been in higher education that families are expecting more, that their children will come out and be able to get a job and have this investment that they’ve made in their children’s education pay off?
Melik Peter Khoury: Absolutely. I think the entire industry is wrestling with that a little bit, too, because I would say until about 20 years ago, it was just… you get to go to college. The experience of being at college was in many ways enough. With the deduction of GI bills in the late 70s, the more that the concept of higher education has expanded to all Americans because back then, less and less people went to college. It was really for a special few. The idea of what does this degree… what is It worth? It becomes as important as going to college. With the changing demographics in the United States, first generation Americans, an increase in demographic changes, the very value of what it means to go to college is changing.
One of the things I think that Unity College has been able to do over the last ten years is show a family that you don’t have to choose between a career and being a well-rounded student. The way we teach students really gives them a sense of what they’re going to be doing, and families really respond to that because they’re not just sending their students to Unity College in order to just get the experience and whatever happens after that happens, but really with a focus on what is my daughter, what is my son going to do after they graduate? Which is why Unity College, we are very proud of the fact that for a small college like Unity, we have one of the largest environmental career fairs in New England. Just a few weeks ago, we had over 100 organizations come to Unity College. It’s gotten so popular. We’re now opening it to some other colleges. We’re opening it to the local community for people who are looking for jobs. We understand that every family that sends their daughter or their son to Unity is either looking to go and work in a career in the environmental sciences or they’re looking to go to grad school.
They are not just coming to Unity for the idea of going to college, and I think our mission, our dedication to that outcome, is why I think we are doing the things that we’re doing right now and where we are investing in our faculty, where we are investing in our partnerships, and why I know that families from all over the country are coming to Unity College for their children to go to.
We are also beginning to expand in our master’s program, where we have a number of individuals in middle management jobs across the country who are looking for their master’s degree, so we introduce the concept of a professional science master’s degree in natural resource management, sustainability science, and so we are expanding that market as well because there’s a lot of folks out there, adults, who can’t come to the traditional four year but really want an education.
Lisa Belisle: You’ve talked about developing Maine as Education Land. What does that mean?
Melik Peter Khoury: Absolutely. As an individual who is a first generation American and living in Vacation Land, it’s really interesting for me that Maine has three climate zones. Our natural resources is abundant. From the coast to the northern Maine woods to the urban lifestyle of Portland, we have such a beautiful landscape that it’s surprising to me. I think last year, over four million tourists drove up Route 1 to Bar Harbor. Why aren’t they dropping their kids off to go to college? Why isn’t Maine the center of natural resource education across the world? If you look at what we have to offer as a state, I don’t think any state should be able to compete with us. We are resource-rich, Mainers are hard-working, the land, the landscape is beautiful. We have wonderful colleges here. In my mind, as much as I love Maine being Vacation Land, I think that if Maine could become Education Land, we would jumpstart yet another economy where it’s not just a few that come to Maine for education, but anybody who wants to learn how to work in the environmental century. For me, Education Land means if we are going to….
I think Portland Press Herald a couple of years ago printed an article that we had like 48 million visitors to Maine? I’m assuming those numbers are right, I didn’t fact-check them, but why aren’t they dropping off their kids here? Why isn’t Maine one huge Education Land where students are learning firsthand how to work in what is becoming global issues: energy, agriculture, forest management, conservation, preservation. It’s a perfect state for it. For me, we are already at Unity College making Maine our classroom. Our students are in all four corners of the state of Maine. We’re learning how to apply their craft as part of the education. For me, it’s just surprising that the entire state does not just adopt that.
Lisa Belisle: What are the barriers?
Melik Peter Khoury: I think higher education has a very… it’s a very old industry. There’s a way we do things and sometimes, we enjoy teaching what we want, instead of what folks need. I think the very concept of education, the industry right now, is in flux. I know that the public trust on education…. Is it valuable, like to your earlier question. I think the entire model was built on historically, where it was designed with a model that no longer is valuable in my mind. I think a lot of colleges are trying to reinvent themselves.
I think we’re stuck within that cycle of this is what we do. I think for me, one of my biggest fears is if we as an industry, I’m talking higher education, does not really reinvent itself to remain independent but relevant to the folks who hire our students, then we are going to lose out because education is always going to be there, but the very nature of our industry, I think needs to be reinvented because spending four years of your life or two years of your life or six years of your life at a college needs to be more than just an experience, but a value-added that prepares you for the world.
I think the model needs to be looked at, which is why at Unity College, we are starting to ask the question, how do we remain independent, but yet remain relevant? How does the very idea of…. This idea of… I hate this adage, they say those who can’t do, teach. That bothers me as a lifelong educator. I want to tell the world, “No, my faculty? They can teach, but they also do.” Right? When my biologist professor gets done in the lab with her students learning about a specific tardigrade for example as part of the…. They go out to the ocean and actually two years ago, discovered a new species of tardigrade.
Lisa Belisle: What is it?
Melik Peter Khoury: A tardigrade is a microscopic sea creature that basically lives off the coast of Maine. In my mind, faculty, they are the ones who carry the innovation. They are the ones who basically bestow knowledge on students. However, with the creation of technology, you can get information out of your phone right now, so how do we take the information as readily available, the technology that is there and teach students how to be global citizens.
For me, that’s the answer is that we have to design a new model so that the public understands that going to college is more than just what you see in the movies and reduced it down to just an experience, but more about preparing yourselves to becoming a responsible global citizen within a global economy. I think that what’s stopping us is, the model hasn’t been built yet. What we’re trying to do is figure out what that model is. It’s an industry that needs to reinvent itself a little bit. Now don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of colleges out there doing this, so it’s not like it’s a novel concept, but as an industry, we have some work to do.
Lisa Belisle: Do you have ideas on how to build this new model?
Melik Peter Khoury: We are actually right…. We have a lot of ideas how to do that, and I think what makes Unity College really special is we are small enough, we are nimble enough that we are a great incubator for this idea. Right now, Unity College is going through a multi-year market research about how students want to learn, what are the trends in the environmental sciences. We’re working on this idea that, why do we have to separate the concept of a good education with practical applicability of what students do? We have, for example, a team on campus right now working on the first and second year experience, because as a private college, we’ve got some flexibility in what does a student need to learn as a baseline for the 21st century? What is the core learning?
A lot of folks talk about the liberal arts and sciences. If you trace it back to its roots, the concept came from Greece. It was adopted by the Romans, but they added military service to it, and it was then co-opted by the United States higher education, and the idea for the liberal arts and sciences is, what is the core that every citizen should know in addition to their career? Maybe it’s time we took a really hard look at that and see what does a 21st century student need to learn in this modern society as the rules continue to change?
At the same time, while knowing that, how do you connect that to a global economy so that when students graduate, they have a career that is relevant, that is fulfilling, but not at the expense of just knowing how to do something, but understanding why. Those are the conversations that we are having with the first and second year. We are looking also at this idea that in higher education, there is the concept of you learn in a vacuum, you go to an internship, then you go to a job and then they got to reteach you how to…. Why are those elements separate? Why aren’t institutions partnering more rapidly with organizations, corporations, where by the time a student graduates, that they’ve got an opportunity to have actually experienced it. Not just one semester, but as part of the very ethos of how they learn.
I would love to see at Unity someday where every career that we offer, every major that we offer, we have a living enterprise that is a manifestation of that. For example, we have a sustainable agriculture program. About ten years ago, the only way we taught that is we had a mock greenhouse, a small patch of land. Now we have a real life farm. We have 25 students working there as work-study. We have a farm manager. We have faculty members doing research there, whether it’s reviving chestnuts in the Northeast or how to use a greenhouse to be more efficient because of some of the energy concerns. All of a sudden, we are blending this very idea that you’ve got an industry and you’ve got higher ed, and you’re using this both commercially because a farmer is selling food, is selling produce, sorry, but at the same time, we are a community-based center where local folks sell their products there, but it’s also an educational facility where our students and our faculty get to experience.
You all of a sudden are blending these worlds that are historically separate. Why not do the same for all of our different careers? For me, the idea is how do we take the wonderful majors that we have and really have living manifestations of them that are sustainable enterprises, not just like…. I want to debunk this idea of it’s an academic exercise which ultimately means nothing happens to, it’s an academic exercise means it’s an innovative idea that manifests itself into a sustainable enterprise. For us, that is the work that we’re doing right now, and it’s a risk. It’s a change in philosophy, so all of the truists go, “Whoa, this is not how higher education needs to work,” but we are small enough, we are dedicated enough, we are passionate enough, that if we are successful, I think we will partner with major organizations across the state of Maine, across New England, across the country, and our students get the best of both worlds and graduate ready to be the next employee, the next innovator, the next entrepreneur that is working in the green industry. That is our goal.
Lisa Belisle: Considering that you were born in Sierra Leone and you’ve been really all over the place, why would you choose to spend so much time in Maine? Why would you choose to have this be your home state?
Melik Peter Khoury: I’ve said this a few times before. It’s a bit of a hokey story, but I can’t help it because it has the benefit of being true. I grew up in the hospitality industry with my father. After work, I would stay up late for him to come home, and we would always watch episodes of “M*A*S*H.” For me, there was this Hawkeye Pierce, who used to write letters to his father in Crabapple Cove in Maine. When it was time for me to go into the world, I fell in love with the concept of Crabapple Cove.
Now granted, it’s not a real place, but after seven years of watching “M*A*S*H” with your dad, I just fell in love with the concept of Maine. I came to Maine and really fell in love with the St. John Valley. I moved up to Fort Kent. It is a beautiful small town. Very well insulated, very friendly. The entire town adopted me, not just the university. I coached in Fort Kent, so I got to travel all over the state. I really fell in love. The idea of what happened with Hawkeye Pierce and his father manifested in my life as I communicated with my father in Gambia because I was in the States and just fell in love with the state.
There’s everything in the state of Maine. There’s the ocean, like I said earlier. I could not think of another state I’d want to live at. When I decided to move on for my career, my hope was always to come back. Originally, I was going to go for about three years, and six-and-a-half years later, I got the right opportunity to come back to Unity College. For me, barring any unforeseen issue, I’m hoping to die in Maine. I fell in love with the state, and I think as a first generation American, as a first generation Mainer, I have an appreciation for this state. I have an appreciation for the four seasons. I have an appreciation for everything that this state has to offer that I think just some of my peers and my colleagues take for granted. For me, it’s not just I love Unity College, it’s not just I love higher education, but I get to do it in a state that actually met the expectations of my dreams.
Lisa Belisle: You have a lot of interesting ideas about higher education and also about Unity College. Where do you hope to see yourself let’s say 20 or 30 years, where do you hope to see Unity College? Do you think you’ll be in the same place?
Melik Peter Khoury: Why not? For me, I think that this concept of the grass is always greener is not necessarily a real thing. No matter where I go, I am going to be trading one opportunity for another, one problem for another. If I could work with my faculty and my staff and my trustees and my community at Unity College and turn Unity College into a model of what small private higher ed needs to be in the next 25 years, with the resources to allow for innovation yet the practical application in partnering with industry, in 25 years, I could see my direct reports, I could see myself, really using the model that we built as a way to infuse that into higher education across the country. I would love to be a destination in which people could come and see all of our sights across Maine, all of the partnerships we have with other businesses, all of the innovations that we have in preparing students, as a living embodiment of how other small private colleges and other colleges could use pieces of what we have created as a way to keep this industry sustained.
For me, success is, Unity College becomes the model with which different schools get to adopt, to keep this what I consider a very, very critical piece of our society, higher education, alive and well. Because one of my concerns is I’m beginning to see us losing this notion that a lot of the world wants, which is the very concept of higher education, liberal arts and science education, based with a career. We’re getting sometimes into too much credentialing and not enough education. There’s a lot of rhetoric out there as if it was an either/or. Either you are this out of touch liberal where you learn to think and can’t do anything, which is a stereotype I don’t agree with, or you are a widget fixer and God forbid you know why you’re fixing the widget. I think those two stereotypes is what’s wrong today with society and we need to really go back to our roots, which is combining the liberal arts and sciences while preparing folks for a career or graduate school.
For me, if Unity College, using our framework of sustainability science to merge theory and application and relevance, becomes a new model, then I’m hoping that for me in 25 years, I have built something that will stand the test of time, and that for me is the definition of success. If every student in the world who wants an education can get one, and they get an education, not just a credential, not just a GPA, and one of the major issues that we’re dealing right now in higher education is tuition. If we can find a model that makes tuition manageable, where this concept of just keep increasing tuition until it’s out of reach for the people who need it the most, then I think I would have been successful. You can’t do that with the traditional approach where students come, learn and go because the old adage is you get a huge endowment. Not every college has that opportunity. How do you keep tuition manageable so that the students who deserve an education do not have it because they can’t afford it? That’s a very complex situation that deals with the relevancy of education and the practicality of its affordability. That is the model I’d love to… I am working on, that hopefully can change the industry over the next ten years.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me about your model, just a little bit.
Melik Peter Khoury: Sure. I think right now, we in higher education really have been experts in siloing the different aspects of what we do. Whether it’s disciplines, whether it’s… what we define as education. For me, the model is going to be creating some sort of partnership and flexibility within the curriculum that does not affect the core of what you have to learn, but allows the students the flexibility to not have to stop their life for four years or two years, and one of the ways that that has been manifested right now is through the concept of online learning, but even then, the online learning has become almost a separate entity from the traditional education, and I think that’s a merging of the two. The creation of flexibility. The working more with organizations and corporations and government in order to find out what they are looking for in a workforce and giving them those students, not having to choose between the worker and the thinker, but really the well-rounded, is the model that I would like to create. One is changing sometimes even the definition of what it means to be a faculty, because right now, some of the best faculty in the world, including some of them at Unity, they don’t just teach in their class, but they’re out there with their students. They are connecting them. They have partnerships.
For example, our agriculture faculty member. He has personal relationships with different farms, and our agriculture students get to work with real-life farmers on a day-to-day basis. He is not just some academic who’s sitting in the classroom teaching from a book, going out to a plot of grass and then saying to the student, “Go and figure it out for yourself.” How do we create that connection? Because what I’m beginning to see, even in large corporations, is that they are beginning to go back to the old apprenticeship, where they’re training their own people for jobs, but if we let that happen, we lose a core element of our society, which is the well-rounded student. How do we merge that?
There’s also become a blur in the US between what is the role of a for-profit, of a private school, of an R1, of a four year school, of a community college, of a trade school. There’s a huge blue. The market is confused about who should go to what and why and what are the benefits and the like. Creating the clarity, making sure that we all do what we do best for our society, is a complex conversation. For me, I think it is partnering with industries outside of the traditional norm of higher ed to create something that does not exist today.
Lisa Belisle: I’m 100% behind what you just said….
Melik Peter Khoury: Thank you.
Lisa Belisle: Having many, many years of education myself, I’m hoping that you are going to be leading the charge or part of the forefront dealing with the higher education issues. I’ve been speaking with Dr. Melik Khoury, who is the president of Unity College, starting in 2012 as the senior vice president for external affairs and then following additional positions in multiple places really across the state and the country. You’re doing good work. Keep it up.
Melik Peter Khoury: Thank you.
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Lisa Belisle: Today, it is my great pleasure to have with me Dr. Michael, also known as Mick, Womersley, and I’m sure that I’m mispronouncing your name. Apologies for that.
Mick Womersley: That’s actually pretty good.
Lisa Belisle: Okay, good, who is a professor at Unity College and the faculty advisor to the Unity College Search and Rescue team. Thanks so much for coming in.
Mick Womersley: You’re very welcome. I’m pleased to be here.
Lisa Belisle: You were telling me that the reason that your last name is a little unique is because it’s actually…
Mick Womersley: It’s English, I’m British. I’m from Yorkshire, and that’s a Yorkshire place name actually. There’s a small town called Womersley in Yorkshire.
Lisa Belisle: I guess the first obvious question, which I’m going to have to ask, is how did you end up in Maine?
Mick Womersley: I just was getting done. I was in the last couple of years of my PhD in environmental policy, and I needed a job. My research funding had run out. Unity College was looking for people to teach in its general education program and I landed the job before I had quite graduated with the PhD. I was a ABD, as they say, all but dissertation. I found myself at Unity College and I stayed there ever since.
Lisa Belisle: Unity College is a really unique school here in Maine. We have a lot of great educational institutions, and Unity is its own thing.
Mick Womersley: I like to think it is unique. I like to think of it as a unique institution on a nationwide level and sort of a hidden gem of Maine’s colleges.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me what it was about Unity besides the fact that it offered you a job, but what was it about specifically that school that drew you?
Mick Womersley: I was very interested in getting a place that allowed me to express all the different aspects of my personality and interests, and search and rescue is something I’ve done since I was in the Royal Air Force. I’ve been involved in search and rescue since 1979, and Unity College having a search and rescue team was quite important. It was also important for me to teach at an environmental college that had a progressive and activist approach, and Unity College meets that definition as well.
Lisa Belisle: For people who aren’t familiar with the term search and rescue, what does that actually mean?
Mick Womersley: Search is when you’re out there looking for people that are lost, and rescue is after you find them and you get them back to safety. The rescue part is actually the easy part, generally speaking. That’s emergency medical technology and also evacuation technology. Search is very difficult, particularly if you have an awful lot of ground to cover, and Maine is big and we often have an awful lot of ground to cover.
Lisa Belisle: One would not necessarily think of a college that’s known for environmental education as also having this search and rescue aspect to it.
Mick Womersley: It’s not necessarily a natural connection, but a big facet of the Unity College degree, one of the most important degree programs at Unity College is our conservation law enforcement program. That prepares students for work in the uniformed law enforcement agencies that deal with wildlife protection and essentially rangering around the country. Those students need a background in search and rescue. Our big connection is, of course, to the Maine Warden Service, which is another national treasure. I’m very pleased to have spent these last 17 years working regularly with the Maine Warden Service and in fact to have placed quite a few of my students in the Maine Warden Service, since we’ve had “North Woods Law,” we’ve actually seen the Warden Service on TV, and so we know what they do firsthand or at least from the TV.
It’s a wonderful job they do, and it’s a very important job. They have over 500 search and rescues a year. For comparison, Unity College might get involved, Unity College Search and Rescue Team might get involved with four or five of those. They do the bulk of the work. We get called in when they need extra people to do large scale searches, and that’s our specialty. We can provide a large number of students that are sufficiently trained and sufficiently fit, and the fit part is perhaps the most important so that the Warden Service doesn’t have to worry about having a bunch of students in the woods, that they’ve got the background, they’ve got the training, they’ve got the map reading, the navigation, and they’re young and agile. They can clamber over rocks and gullies and trees and rivers and streams without naturally getting hurt quite as easily as I would. That’s an important facet for the Maine Warden Service.
Lisa Belisle: You also began this when you were young and agile. You joined the Royal Air Force when you were 17.
Mick Womersley: Yeah. That was a long time ago. I didn’t start, I had a year of technical training before I joined the Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue service, but I did spend five and a half years in Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue and I’m still heavily involved with the ex-servicemen’s group that belongs to Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue. I’ve been in this country since 1986 now, and I’ve actually been on more American search and rescue and mountain rescue teams than I ever was on Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue teams. I’ve been doing this for a long time, even in this country.
Lisa Belisle: What is the draw? How does one become interested in doing search and rescue, aside from doing it with the Air Force, but I would imagine you wouldn’t keep doing this if there wasn’t something about it that appealed to you.
Mick Womersley: I think perhaps I have an inflated sense of duty, and it might be a mistake some of the time. You find yourself out there in bad weather and wondering what it is that you’re doing and why you signed up for this. Somebody has to do it and let’s think about this, your organization promotes travel to Maine and so people are going to come to the state of Maine and some of them are going to go in the woods and some of them are going to get lost necessarily. The great state of Maine has the Maine Warden Service, and a big part of their job is to rescue people, search and rescue people from the woods and waters of the state of Maine, but they simply can’t have enough people. It’s not cost-effective for them to have the several hundred people on standby that it would take to run a very large area search using grid searching technique. Some of the biggest searches that we’ve been involved in might have upwards of 200 people from all the different volunteer search and rescue organizations in the state of Maine.
We have an umbrella organization, Maine Association for Search and Rescue. I’ve been part of that now for a long time. We’re very sure to work with Maine Association for Search and Rescue and to do all the things that we need to do to certify our students and to be part of the system, to be a productive, responsible part of the system.
Lisa Belisle: We’ve had Kate Braestrup on the show a couple of times and she’s a chaplain who works….
Mick Womersley: I know Kate.
Lisa Belisle: You know Kate, so… she has spoken about and written about as an author some of the circumstances when the rescue isn’t a rescue, it’s a retrieval, and the difficulties surrounding that. You’re bringing college students into….
Mick Womersley: It can be tough. It could be very tough. We’ve had more than one occasion where our students have been first on the scene to find someone who passed away. On the one hand, you worry about having to protect students, particularly the younger students from the kinds of shocks and even post-traumatic stress disorder that can occur if you have an awful lot of that. On the other hand, those students that are going to go do this for a living, it’s probably the case that the sooner they get exposed to some of the sadder events, the better.
We have to teach them how to deal with that. A big part of my job is the advisor. I do occasionally go in the field still, but as you can probably guess, that’s not the most effective role for me. My most effective role is making sure that the students are ready to go in the field, and part of that is are they mentally ready and particularly when we know that we’re probably looking for someone who’s…. If someone’s been out there a long time, if the weather’s been really bad, a lot of the time, you may not say it out loud, but you kind of know that you may be looking for someone who’s already passed away. That can be very sad, and it’s pretty important to make sure the students are prepared. I have a kind of a pep talk that I make sure I give them and get them ready for that.
Lisa Belisle: How does one become trained in this field? What are the different facets of training required in order to do search and rescue?
Mick Womersley: The basic skill is, can you hike in the woods and the hills? You have to be fit enough to be able to hike. We use a fitness test as a basic test to find out if students can manage that. Then we need to be able to navigate using map and compass across the woods and fields and to be able to…. In particular, since the Unity College search and rescue team is most frequently doing the kind of search that we call a grid search or a line search that requires you to be able to take a bearing across a piece of wooded terrain and to hold to that bearing, particularly on the left and the right sides of the line, so that you sweep across and then you pivot and sweep back in the other direction, and you don’t want to have a whole lot of overlap between those two. You need to be able to walk in a bearing pretty well. You need to be able to use a GPS. We need them to have at least the basic first aid and CPR. We like it when students go out and get more advanced first aid and CPR skills. We like it when they get EMT or paramedic and quite a few of our students are also members of our local volunteer fire department, so they often get those qualifications as a result of their other volunteer work with the volunteer fire department.
We also run something called Wilderness First Responder, which is a proprietary first aid course every year or so at the college and students will participate in that. This hasn’t changed since I first got involved in this in 1979. The first qualification is, are your legs and your back strong enough that you can do this without getting hurt? Unfortunately, that’s no longer true for me.
Lisa Belisle: Well, we all have a role, right? Your role is also as important as when you were starting to do this as a younger person.
Mick Womersley: I had some very good team leaders when I was young, and I still remember them and some of them are still very good friends of mine. They were mentors to me, and I try to pass that on to the students that I am responsible for.
Lisa Belisle: At the same time, we’ve been talking about all of the stuff that you do with search and rescue, but you also have a very rich and quite interesting academic background.
Mick Womersley: It’s nice of you to bring that up. I’m a climate policy scientist. I work in climate policy and in economics, and I am responsible for a degree program in Unity College that trains students to become involved in the renewable energy business, which is one response to climate change.
Lisa Belisle: Have you found there to be any crossover between the work that you do in one area and the other?
Mick Womersley: Well, there is. This is the way…. You’ll only get this from someone who teaches general education at a college, right, but what is your understanding of the good society? What kind of a society do you want to live in? Do you want to live in a society where volunteering is recognized and important, where there are organizations that will come work for you if you get lost in the woods, where you wouldn’t necessarily get billed for an expensive rescue as might be the case in some other countries and even some other states in the union, and you can take that same idea, the idea that there is some greater understanding of a good society that we can talk about, and you can apply that easily to climate policy.
I have a young daughter. She’s two and a half this month, and I want to be sure that she grows up on a planet with a stable climate that isn’t going to descend into the kind of chaos that when I’m long dead, she will have a good deal of trouble dealing with. That’s the connection that I make.
Lisa Belisle: You wrote your dissertation on American religiosity and climate science acceptance.
Mick Womersley: There was a moment in American politics about 16, 17 years ago when I just got done with the dissertation where it seemed like religious groups might get involved in climate change politics. They did to some extent. There was an organization called the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. It still exists today. They were trying to get all of the churches, particularly the mainstream churches, the Catholic churches, Anglican, Presbyterian, and so on, involved in lobbying for good climate policy. The organization still exists. I’m afraid I made the mistake of thinking in my PhD dissertation that it would be more powerful than it was.
Lisa Belisle: Do you think it’s still possible that that could happen?
Mick Womersley: I think one has to think about again the kind of society you want to live in. I think religious organizations are very much under this responsibility as much as any of the rest of us, particularly academics. They share, religious organizations share with academics the responsibility for promoting a vision of the good society. Science tells us that the climate is going to get a lot more difficult for people to live with over the next 20, 30, 40, 50 years and that by the end of the century, Maine will have a climate that is more like Virginia’s than the climate that we have right now. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that Mainers would feel good about living in a state that had the climate of Virginia. They signed up to live in Maine, not Virginia.
That’s if we don’t do better in mitigation and adaptation, we’ll face that possibility. That’s what the science tells us, and so I think it’s incumbent upon those organizations and society whose job it is to think about how a good society is constructed and I would include religious leaders, academics, politicians, radio show hosts, anyone who is part of the fabric of society, that’s part of the way that society ponders such questions, I think it’s incumbent upon us all to think about it, and to my mind, the connection between search and rescue and planetary rescue, if you will, is pretty clear and straightforward. One of the reasons I left the British military and I kept my career ashore was because it was pretty clear at the time that we were not heading into a good place as far as the global environment. In the 1980s, we were just starting to become aware of global environmental problems, and I felt like I needed to get involved in those and I have, but I have still kept my interest in search and rescue.
Lisa Belisle: Is there some aspect of the work you’re doing… Maybe an attempt to do something really very practical and very concrete in the face of this very almost amorphous and difficult conversation about climate change, where, you know, we can’t just recycle and compost and then….
Mick Womersley: No you can’t.
Lisa Belisle: We’re going to bring the temperatures down.
Mick Womersley: I think that is a very difficult problem. As a result of that, a large number of people in the United States and around the world just kind of give up on it. It’s what we sometimes call in academia a wicked program, which is a good use of that old New England term wicked. It really is complex and difficult and a lot of people give up on trying to understand it without even trying. Part of the problem, I think, is that whilst there are simple straightforward things that we can do, they’re not necessarily easy. It’s hard to use less fossil fuels, particularly if you have, for instance, a home that is heated with oil, if you have a family that you need to look after in that home, if you can’t afford to buy an electric car or in many cases in Maine, electric cars are impractical part of the year. It’s difficult to know what to do.
Scientists, we love complexity. We deal in complexity, and there’s nothing I like more than being able to understand complex systems, and I’m naturally predisposed in the same way that I used to be predisposed to figure out the innards of a jet engine, I’m naturally predisposed to figure out how the climate system works and how climate policy works. We like that kind of complexity, but it doesn’t help us when we have to explain things to ordinary people. I think that’s part of the problem.
For nearly a generation now, climate scientists have been trying to avoid something that we sometimes call runaway climate change. This is the situation where our climate begins to spiral out of control. It’s no longer easy to understand where it’s going to end up. Internationally, we’ve set a goal of two degrees Celsius global warming, and we’re trying to limit anthropogenic climate change to two degrees Celsius global warming, and we’ve told ourselves for pretty good scientific reasons that if we can do that, then we’re going to avoid this very dangerously destabilizing runaway climate change.
I don’t think we’ve done a good job of communicating the potential horror of dangerously destabilizing climate change. Most people imagine, I think most people that are thinking about climate change in the United States imagine things are just going to get a bit warmer. They probably will. More than likely, that’s what happens. Things just get a bit warmer. Maine finishes up by 2050 with a climate more like that of southern New York state, by the end of the century, with a climate more like that of Virginia, if we don’t do anything, if we don’t mitigate.
What’s really scary about that is if you allow that to go forward, if you don’t mitigate, if you don’t reduce fossil fuel emissions, then you stand this increasing chance of encountering this runaway situation, this dangerously destabilizing climate change. Scientists are naturally reticent and conservative, and we don’t like to do what politicians do, which is to scare people with scary stories that make them vote for politicians that have simplistic views of things. Scientists have avoided talking about dangerously destabilizing climate change, but everything we’re doing internationally is based on the attempt to avoid runaway dangerously destabilizing climate change. It may only be a very small chance. It may be what happens is the climate warms and then it warms a bit more and then it warms a bit more and it doesn’t really get to too terrible a situation and it sort of levels off, and there’s a good chance that that might happen.
There’s also a good chance, and we know this from some of the work that some of my colleagues have done, even with some of my colleagues at Unity College, that there are built-in feedback loops in the climate system that allow it to spiral out of control. I have a colleague Keven Spiegel who goes around the country looking for times in geological history where we’ve had rapid climate change. He uses lake sediments and palynology, pollen analysis of lake sediments on the basis of pollen and other variables, to try to figure out when those things have happened, and they have happened. There have been times when the planet’s climate has warmed dramatically as much as ten degrees Celsius over a very, very short period of time, a few decades. Human society is not organized to deal with that kind of change. It would be very, very difficult, and it would lead to a lot of civil and social unrest, if not war. We need to do what we can to avoid that, and as I mentioned at the beginning, I don’t think climate scientists….
I think client scientists have typically avoided talking about the potential for dangerously destabilizing climate change. Whenever we’ve had the chance to talk to the media, you’re giving me an opportunity today to talk to the media, we’ve tended to stick to the straightforward, “Well, Maine is going to finish up with a climate more like that of Virginia in 100 years time if we don’t do anything to reduce fossil fuel emissions.” There are probably some people out there that are thinking, “You know, Virginia’s got a nice climate. I’m not worried about that.” It’s entirely possible to be a reasonable human being, and perhaps if you’re not that interested in things like forests and habitat and moose and lynx, perhaps if you don’t understand about those things, you may not think it’s such a bad thing. You might think, “Well, it’s going to be warmer, that’s nice. I can grow tomatoes out of doors without having to worry about it.”
It’s that small possibility that in addition to that kind of warming, we risk dangerously destabilizing or runaway climate change. I think that’s the thing that we have to avoid and the way to avoid it is to reduce fossil fuel emissions. It’s unfortunate that there are an enormous number of wealthy people around the world who have ownership rights in fossil fuel. They are just naturally going to do whatever they can, despite the fact that they have children and grandchildren, right, that somehow they believe that either the climate science is not correct, or that perhaps they’ll be rich enough that these horrors won’t fall on their children and grandchildren. Is that what they’re thinking, I don’t really know. I don’t get to talk to that many rich people. It beggars belief that anybody who is an intelligent person who wasn’t afraid of ideas, who had studied climate science, who had children and grandchildren, it beggars belief to me that they would be unwilling to adopt sensible mitigation technology.
Especially when, and this is what I find is very important, I’m primarily an economist, a policy wonk, a policy PhD is primarily an economist. I can demonstrate quite easily that renewable energy is now as cheap as a lot of fossil fuel and getting cheaper all the time. It’s not even that this would really cost us any more. Luckily, there are plenty of commercial interests that are on the side of climate change, the insurance companies, the big tech companies who don’t have ownership in fossil fuel. I think this will sort itself out in the long run. The question is whether it will sort itself out in time. That’s what worries me. That was a lot. You got quite a lot. You got a few large paragraphs there with just one question, didn’t you?
Lisa Belisle: I think it’s exactly as you’ve said. I think if you’re willing to come in here and talk to us about what’s actually going on from your standpoint as a scientist and as an economist, then it’s worth listening to.
Mick Womersley: Thank you for that. I thought I was coming here to talk about search and rescue, so it’s great that I got a chance to talk about the rest of my work, too.
Lisa Belisle: Searching and rescuing the planet I think is also… at least rescuing, I think we’ve already found it from what I can tell.
Mick Womersley: Yeah. We know where it is.
Lisa Belisle: We know where it is.
Mick Womersley: Third rock from the sun.
Lisa Belisle: There you go. I’ve been speaking with Dr. Mick Womersley, who is a professor at Unity College and the faculty advisor to the Unity College Search and Rescue team. You’ve given me a lot of things to think about, and I really appreciate your coming in today.
Mick Womersley: You’re very welcome. I’m glad I could be here.
Lisa Belisle: You have been listening to Love Maine Radio, Show #287, Unity: Education, Search, and Rescue. Our guests have included Dr. Melik Peter Khoury and Professor Mick Womersley. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show, sign up for our e-newsletter, and follow us on Facebook. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show, sign up for a E-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as Dr. Lisa and see our Love Maine Radio photos on Instagram. We’d love to hear from you, so please let us know what you think of Love Maine Radio. We welcome your suggestions for future shows. Also let our sponsors know that you have heard about them here. We are privileged that they enable us to bring Love Maine Radio to you each week. This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. I hope that you have enjoyed our Unity: Education, Search, and Rescue show. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your day. May you have a bountiful life.
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