Warren Wilson College student honored as Barnhill Civic Trailblazer

December 20, 2017
2017 Barnhill Civic Trailblazer Brian Wuertz (Photo by Reggie Tidwell)

Warren Wilson College senior Brian Wuertz is the 2017 recipient of the John H. Barnhill Civic Trailblazer Award. The annual award is presented by North Carolina Campus Compact to one student in the state who fostered innovative service partnerships and whose leadership inspires others to serve.

An Asheville native, Wuertz learned early of Warren Wilson’s community service ethos: his third-grade class was visited by the Eco-Team, a group of Warren Wilson students who taught ecology lessons. The experience of dissecting owl pellets and investigating local ecosystems alongside college students made an impression: when it came time for him to choose a college, Brian chose Warren Wilson. And when he arrived as a first year student looking for a service opportunity, he chose the Eco-Team.

At the time, the Eco-Team was on hiatus, but Brian and other students revitalized the project. Brian became the student coordinator, building new relationships with local schools, updating the curriculum, and training volunteers. The team now includes about a dozen dedicated volunteers who serve some 300 children across four elementary schools each year, team-teaching an 8-week series of hands-on environmental education lessons that emphasize local ecology and wildlife.

Brian’s favorite part of the program is building relationships. Because the Eco-Team works in the same classroom for several weeks, Brian says, “We know the third graders’ names. It’s not a one-time thing. We come each week, and they are looking forward to seeing us.”

Brian’s service work reflects his academic interests – he is a biology and biochemistry major, who conducted field research on the eastern spotted skunk for the NC Wildlife Commission. He presented the research last summer at the Wildlife Society’s national conference, and he is turning the project into a hands-on science curriculum for seventh graders. But his service is not about the science, really. “Environmental education is important to me, but it’s more than that. The big picture is preparing the next group of young people to be civically engaged, to empower them.”

During his first two years at the college, Brian also worked with a partner agency – Community Action Opportunities – on the INSULATE program, which sends Wilson students into the community to weatherize the homes of low-income neighbors.

Wuertz addressing students at CSNAP Conference. Photo by Kenny Brock.

One of the experiences that has been most meaningful for him is serving as a Big Brother every week. As a science major, Brian says, “It’s kind of hard to never take a class or lab between 2:30 and 5:00 on Tuesday afternoons,” but he credits professors who have given him the flexibility to be committed to the relationship with his “little.”

“It’s taught me a lot about challenges different children face,” Brian says. “And it’s shown me the biggest thing kids need is a consistently positive force, to communicate a consistently positive view of them. That’s really informed how I interact with everybody.”

In her nomination letter, Dr. Liesl Erb, professor of conservation biology, calls Brian “one of Western North Carolina’s treasures” who “infuses a steadfast dedication to the greater good in all he does.”  She recounts a recent presentation Brian made to a gathering of 200 seventh-graders in Sylva. “At the conclusion of the event,” Erb writes, “teachers approached us to share that they had overheard students exclaiming, ‘Spotted skunks are cool!’ and “I want to do work like him!’”

Wuertz with John Barnhill. Photo by Kenny Brock.

Created in 2011, the Barnhill Award is named for John H. Barnhill, who founded innovative service programs while a student at Elon University and who later became the founding executive director of North Carolina Campus Compact. Wuertz is the eighth student to receive the award.

Wuertz was honored at the Compact’s annual CSNAP student conference, held this year on November 18 at Winston-Salem State University. The event convened more than 230 students and staff from 28 campuses in the network. In addition to awards and networking opportunities, the conference included student-led workshops on diverse community engagement topics and featured four “change makers” from the Winston-Salem community.

At the CSNAP Conference, Wuertz and fellow WWC student Christian Perry led a workshop sharing the Eco-Team program model. Photo by Kenny Brock.