published February 21, 2013

Undergraduate Spotlight: Leading from the Middle

Glenn Odenbrett, NCSCE

The dream of a fishable and swimmable Buffalo River is one that Rhiannon Starks was determined to make a reality long before she attended Erie Community College (ECC) and began working there as an undergraduate stewardship liaison (USL) for GLISTEN, the Great Lakes Innovative Stewardship Through Education Network. While at ECC, Rhiannon was able to channel her passion for improving the environment in her own community into developing and facilitating service-learning components of new courses in the college's environmental science major recently approved by the New York Board of Regents.

As a GLISTEN USL, Rhiannon served as a bridge between ECC faculty and staff from community-based organizations that benefited from the service-learning components of those environmental science courses. For example, leading from her position "in the middle," she recruited ECC students to assist the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper with protection and restoration of the West Seneca Oxbow wetland, one of only three major wetlands in the lower Buffalo River watershed. Their efforts included removal of invasive terrestrial species such as Japanese knotweed and phragmites (common reed) and replanting the wetland with trees and other plant species suitable for supporting a diversity of wetland wildlife. Through another service-learning partnership with the Buffalo Olmsted Park Conservancy, students under her leadership created a herbarium of over 100 dried plant species that serves as a documented inventory and catalog of plants in the park system. In yet another partnership with the Alliance for the Great Lakes which Rhiannon coordinated, ECC students conducted regular beach water quality monitoring and litter removal and cataloging to help create a Great Lakes-wide database of beach health.

John Danna, a professor of Rhiannon's from Erie Community College, notes, "Rhiannon Starks is a dedicated environmentalist with a lifelong commitment to improving our environment. She is well versed on all academic issues and her hands-on field experience is outstanding."

In recognition of her leadership achievements while a USL at ECC, Rhiannon received a number of awards. In 2011 she received the SUNY Chancellor's Award for Academic Excellence in recognition of her "integration of academic excellence with accomplishments in the areas of leadership, athletics, community service, creative and performing arts, campus involvement, or career achievement." That same year she also received a New York State Citation of Merit, which is awarded to students "who have shown leadership and have demonstrated a willingness to assist both their school and their communities." She was given the Most Outstanding Student Leader award last year.

Rhiannon's efforts as a USL led to new career opportunities as she completed her associate degree in environmental science. The first was with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation's Randolph Fish Hatchery, where she learned the methods and techniques used to raise fish from eggs to broodstock, and participated in efforts to raise and repopulate Longear Sunfish, a species threatened by siltation, water quality deterioration, and hybridization with other sunfish. She will soon be pursuing a bachelor's degree at the State University of New York in Fredonia.

When asked if she would recommend the USL position to other students, Rhiannon answered:

The USL position was an amazing experience and opportunity because it gave me a sense of leadership and responsibility for our environment and the future of the Great Lakes. During my role as a Great Lakes USL for GLISTEN, I...networked with several state and local agencies and organizations. These vital networking experiences have given me opportunities for employment as well as...helped me link students, faculty, and organizations in our region to...make a difference for Great Lakes sustainability.

Undergraduate students on campuses in the Great Lakes ecosystem who are interested in becoming undergraduate stewardship liaisons may contact Glenn Odenbrett at for further information.