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Helping Student Housing at a Tribal College Grow

Plenty of University of Wisconsin-Madison seniors sequester themselves in libraries and labs preparing final projects for upper-level classes, but landscape architecture major Katie Selin recently found herself mapping land, reviewing aerial photographs, conducting workshops and meeting with tribal elders in northern Wisconsin.

As part of a capstone experience for her undergraduate degree, Selin created a plan for environmentally friendly student housing and community space at the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College.

“There’s an overarching tension on the reservation between the need for housing and economic development and the need to preserve water quality,” explains Sue Thering, a professor of landscape architecture in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and Selin’s advisor. Of particular importance are the area”s wild rice beds, which are embedded in Ojibwa culture, says Thering.

As the reservation and the college plan to add much-needed housing, instructional and community space, they must find a way to place roads and buildings without compromising environmental quality–and that’s where Selin, Thering and others in the department saw an opportunity to be involved. Landscape architects design, plan and manage everything from small sites to regional corridors, with the goal of revitalizing and protecting environment and culture for future generations.

All CALS students, including landscape architect majors, are required to complete a capstone course where they apply classroom learning to real-world problems. For her project, Selin, a Madison native, worked with Lac Courte Oreilles elders and community members to design new housing for the college–with an emphasis on single student families and tribal elders. She also did some regional work mapping green infrastructure and identifying key environmental corridors.

While Selin had the design knowledge she needed to tackle a project of this size, she teamed up with Katy Bresette–a UW-Madison student from Red Cliff, Wis., and the daughter of Ojibwe activist Walt Bresette–to incorporate native culture into her work. “Katy is my cultural mentor,” says Selin. “She helped me bring aspects of a very complex culture into my plans in a meaningful way.”

“I was able to connect the proposed buildings with an ethno-botany trail on the site,” Selin explains. “I also used cultural symbols in social spaces, in the hopes of fostering interaction. I designed a courtyard in the shape of a dream catcher, using rings of plants with colorful blooms to represent the traditional medicine wheel.”

While there’s no guarantee that Selin’s proposal will be used, it gives the reservation and the college some ideas to consider–and it’s possible that some aspects of the plan will be included when the final decisions are made. The project has been getting some recognition outside of Wisconsin: Selin, Bresette and Thering recently presented their work at the Association of Community Design conference in New York City.

“To me, the benefit of doing a capstone course like this is that this is the type of project that a design firm might never take on,” says Selin. “But I’m learning to design in a different way because of this.”