As First Tunnicliff Fellow, Utrata, '15, Studies Sustainability in South Africa

Experience was supported by endowment honoring longtime Ford Institute director

David Utrata pauses for a photo from a lookout point at the top of Table Mountain, just south of Cape Town.
David Utrata pauses for a photo from a lookout point at the top of Table Mountain, just south of Cape Town.

March 5, 2015 | By John Perney

Three and a half years ago, Kim Tunnicliff, the former longtime director of Albion College’s then-named Gerald R. Ford Institute for Public Service, tragically lost his life in a car accident.

A destination sign at the Stellenbosch train station.
A destination sign at the Stellenbosch train station.

Following the initial shock, many Ford alumni—whose penchant for leadership Tunnicliff had fostered—sprang into action. After all, it’s what Fordies do best. They worked with Ginny Tunnicliff, Kim’s widow, to attract monetary gifts and establish the Kim Tunnicliff Endowment at Albion College.

Administered by the College’s Center for International Education and Off-Campus Programs (CIE), the endowment supports students engaging in an Albion-approved study-abroad program, as international experiences had been a Tunnicliff hallmark and passion as an educator. This past fall, the endowment supported its first fellow, David Utrata, ’15. The member of the Ford Institute for Leadership in Public Policy and Service and the Center for Sustainability and the Environment recently completed a semester in Stellenbosch, South Africa, through the CIEE Stellenbosch Sustainability and Community program.

A Different Paradigm

Namaqua National Park, a six-hour drive north from Stellenbosch/Cape Town. The sign stresses the importance of not removing dead trees as they can provide homes for snakes and lizards as well as beetles and other insects. Over time, a variety of fungi contribute to wood decay.
Namaqua National Park, a six-hour drive north from Stellenbosch and Cape Town. The sign stresses the importance of not removing dead trees from the ecosystem as they can provide homes for snakes and lizards as well as beetles and other insects. Over time, a variety of fungi contribute to wood decay.

While Utrata’s course work focused on his anthropology and sustainability studies majors, he was struck by the different approach to concepts and ideas. In the U.S., he says, green and other environmental initiatives usually are within a global-economy or business-operations context.

“[In South Africa], it’s in many ways more of a social focus,” Utrata said. “There, you have a population that is strategically isolated from resources. Inequalities have widened—we’re talking brute social realities.”

Considered South Africa’s center for “clean industry,” Stellenbosch is located 50 kilometers east of Cape Town. Field excursions and visits to businesses and cultural institutions in the region were also part of the experience. Again, he says, sustainability discussions mainly revolved around social and development issues.

“It’s such an important thing to understand and diagnose; it seems like the decisions of the global North benefit the North and not so much the South,” said Utrata in reference to the impact of various International Monetary Fund policies “It’s a simplistic way to look at it, but there’s also something very real about it.

“In some ways, I felt at home,” he continued. “Marx is not a dirty word in analyzing development. There are words and ideas they are willing to broach and question. They don’t take those things for granted—I appreciate that. I didn’t know what assumptions I had going in, but I found a kinship I wasn’t expecting, one of those ‘we’re all people’ kind of moments.”

Sharing the Experience

At Cape Point, just east of the Cape of Good Hope, the southwestern edge of the African continent. Utrata is a graduate of North Forsyth High School outside Atlanta and attended the University of Georgia prior to transferring to Albion.
At Cape Point, just east of the Cape of Good Hope, the southwestern edge of the African continent. Utrata is a graduate of North Forsyth High School outside Atlanta and attended the University of Georgia prior to transferring to Albion.

As part of his Tunnicliff Fellowship, Utrata will deliver a public presentation summarizing his experience and research—it's scheduled for Tuesday, April 14, at 7 p.m. in Bobbitt Auditorium. He said it likely will focus on the multiple approaches to sustainability, but added more definitively, “I think sustainability will become a discipline of its own in the social sciences.”

To be sure, Utrata will deliver his talk to an informed and engaged audience.

“In so many ways, David wonderfully exemplifies the kind of student we hoped to recognize and assist with the Tunnicliff Endowment,” said Ginny Tunnicliff. “We are looking forward to meeting David and learning more about the work he is doing when he gives his presentation this spring.”

Originally appointed at Albion in 1984 as a faculty member in the Political Science Department, Kim Tunnicliff led the Ford Institute from 1985 to 1999. Throughout his career—at Albion, and later at the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, Augustana College, and the College of Wooster—he worked to develop experiential and international educational opportunities for students. In 1988, he directed Albion’s Great Lakes Jerusalem Program, spending a semester in Jordan, Israel, and Palestine with students.

“International study should be an integral part of an Albion education and available to all students who are qualified,” said CIE Director Debra Peterson. “Unfortunately, students often feel the cost puts this opportunity out of reach. The Tunnicliff Fellowship can help students move study abroad from wish list to reality.”

“[The fellowship] covered my expense to get there, the actual plane ticket,” Utrata said. “It allowed me the access to get there and get in the door.”

Tunnicliff also held an appreciation for the vibrancy of policy and politics at home. He served on Albion’s City Council from 1994 to 1999 (including as mayor from 1997-99), and in 1996 lost to the incumbent candidate in an election for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Tunnicliff involved several Ford students as campaign staff in that House run, a personal example among the hundreds of hands-on, out-of-classroom experiences he generated for students that have since carried them forward to leadership positions both in the U.S. and around the world.

“I would have really enjoyed talking with Kim Tunnicliff and sharing a lot of perspectives about international travel, international education, and being a global citizen,” Utrata said. “I appreciated the scholarship being in his name, based on who he was.”

“Our family is deeply grateful to everyone who has helped make this fellowship a reality,” Ginny Tunnicliff said. “What an eloquent testament to Kim.”

Visit the CIE website for more information about the Kim Tunnicliff Endowment.