Dr. Mona Becker of the Environmental Studies Department has an unusual connection to the Westminster community: she is currently a sitting councilwoman on the Westminster City Council after being elected in May. She believes this could be the first time ever a McDaniel faculty member was elected to town office.
“I’m really interested in building some closer ties between the college and the town,” she says.
Her position as a councilwoman is helping her reach that goal. For example, the City Council walks in the Fall Fest parade, and she was “sure to wear [her] McDaniel shirt.” She also helps connect students to the town, such as some helping with Main Street tree care and Jeb Shingler, who did an internship project with the tree heritage trail at Bennett Cerf Park over the summer.
In addition to being a councilwoman, Dr. Becker is a loving partner, chair of the Environmental Studies Department, and on the Monocacy Scenic River Citizens’ Advisory Board and the board of the Maryland Association of Science Teachers.
The Environmental Studies department evolved from the Environmental Policy and Science Program, something she helped put together in 2003.
For roughly six years, Dr. Becker has been working here. During that time, the program/department has gone from graduating about seven majors a year to graduating 18 last year and 21 the year before.
This year, Dr. Becker has four students presenting at a national conference in November hosted by the Geological Society of America. Most of their research took place at the Singleton-Mathews farm, which is owned by McDaniel and about 5.3 miles from campus.
This has all been possible because of a dedication to students, education, the environment, and fun, interests that clearly overlap.
“I always knew I was going to do something that was going to land me outside,” says Dr. Becker. “I grew up on a farm, and from the earliest I can remember, I’d be out in the garden picking up rocks and pieces of coal and bringing them back into the house.”
Dr. Becker went from picking up coal to earning a BA, MS, and Ph.D. in geology, and a postdoctoral position at Oxford as a University Research Associate studying lead and uranium in young carbonite soil.
“I had all these preconceived notions about what living in England would be like,” she says of her time at Oxford. “And I was not disappointed. When I got to walk to work every day passed a church that was over a thousand years old and passed all the colleges at Oxford, I was not disappointed.”
From there, she did some work in the Carroll County Public Schools doing education design, writing benchmarks, writing curriculums, and classroom teaching.
Dr. Becker joined McDaniel’s faculty in 2010 and is in her third year as the Environmental Studies department chair, where she continues to keep her eye on many futures: her own, her students’, the department’s, and even McDaniel’s.
“I met her at admitted students day,” says Ashley Pritchard, who did research on the soil at the Singleton-Mathews farm this summer with Dr. Becker. “I already knew what I wanted to major in, but after talking to her, I knew I wanted to go to McDaniel and be a part of the Environmental Studies department. She is always keeping students up to date on jobs and internship opportunities.”
“You can tell she always wants the best for you,” adds Andrew Hofmeister, another student that conducted research this summer with Dr. Becker. “She pushes you but understands your limits.”
Dr. Becker has also influenced her students through her hiring decisions by bringing Dr. Scullion, who in his third semester at McDaniel, into the Environmental Studies Department.
Dr. Becker says of herself and Dr. Scullion, “We’re both really motivated to see our students succeed, and we want them to be successful and get out there.”
Dr. Becker and Dr. Scullion work together not just on directly helping students, but also on the department and the Singleton-Mathews farm’s ability to help students in the future.
“I do [take classes out to the farm], not as much as Dr. Scullion does,” Dr. Becker says. “We started going out more in the chemistry class, because we were starting to analyze the soil and the water and so on.”
Currently, it’s difficult for the department to do much research there, and it’s also difficult to get students outside of the department there.
“I would love to start an education campaign to convince the students that the farm is not that far away,” she says.
Those aren’t her only hopes for the farm. She’s currently part of a proposal to turn more of the land into forested areas, which could increase the complex environment available on the land and even make the college money. She also thinks a ropes course, camping grounds, orienteering, and geocaching are possibilities for getting the community and students active on the land.
“I would love to see a Sustainability House, like one of the affinity houses that McDaniel has,” she says. “where students would have to live at the farm over a year, and they would have to sign some sort of a contract that they would be responsible for…some project related to the sustainability of the farm, whether it be solar panels or something like that.”
She would also love to see a wet lab for the Environmental Studies students at the farm so they can analyze samples there. The most important idea, and the most appealing, is turning the farm into a nature preserve.
“We could really do a nature preserve, a true nature preserve, some sort of collaboration with K through 12 schools in this area,” she says, “maybe be a little bit of a mini Hashawha, not have them stay overnight, but definitely provide an education source.”
She adds that then, “we’re not just a college with a farm; we’re a college with a nature preserve, which stands out a little bit more.”
Such a nature preserve has the potential to benefit not just Environmental Studies students, but students with education minors, business students, design students, communication students, and anyone else with a desire to get involved.
Each of these improvements and changes to the Singleton-Mathews farm would benefit the students, the community, and McDaniel, all of which are constantly in Dr. Becker’s thoughts, especially the students she invests so much of her time in.
“We’re both really good energizers of students,” she says of herself and Dr. Scullion. “‘Student first’ is so cliché, but we both really are students-first sort of people”
For this reason, graduation day is always both happy and sad. Good students move on, but Dr. Becker knows she’ll see them again.
“Our students will stay in touch with us when they leave,” she says. “I can guarantee it.”
Note: This reporter has done research on the Singleton-Mathews farm as part of a class.