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Creating Gull Island Institute on Penikese Island

Just southeast of Penikese Island, towards the end of the Elizabeth Islands, sits a rocky outcrop called Gull Island. Visible during low tide and submerged at high tide, the island is uninhabitable but sustains life as a feeding area for seabirds and seals.

Despite the bleakness, the sense of hope engendered by nature renewing itself is the inspiration for Gull Island Institute, co-founded by Justin Reynolds ’99 Ph.D. and his wife Ana Keilson Ph.D.

Historians who have taught in core curriculum and liberal arts programs at institutions including Harvard and Columbia, Reynolds and Keilson were concerned by how often their students asked existential questions about climate issues. After much discussion, they traded the traditional classroom for the bare bones of Penikese Island and stretched their academic minds to reimagine liberal arts in a time of climate change.

One of the things they wanted to do with the Gull Island Institute was to show how immersing yourself in the particulars of a place could make a huge difference. Keilson said that the place-based experience helps students apply new skills wherever they go, from their local communities to “a bigger, more global scale.”

In order to learn about and address climate challenges, science is necessary. “But it can’t answer the most important human questions that climate change raises,” said Reynolds, “and that’s where liberal arts can help.”

For example, he mused that science research can predict when and how the Gulf Stream might collapse, but it won’t determine how communities respond. Nor will science prepare citizens who will confront a world of warming temperatures, geoengineering, climate migration, and global conflicts. “Those are ultimately civic problems. The liberal arts are necessary to address the social, political, and ethical challenges of climate change,” said Reynolds.

The mission of Gull Island Institute is to cultivate democratic citizenship in an age of climate change. The Institute held a one-week trial program in March 2022 to test the concept. This summer finished its first “Junemester,” an open-application program free of charge to college undergrads in their junior or senior year or to those who have just graduated. It is grounded in three pillars: rigorous academics, physical labor, and self-governance. Faculty come from the natural and social sciences, and humanities, as well as local business leaders and tribal educators from the Aquinnah and Wampanoag tribes.

Based on Penikese Island with work on Cuttyhunk Island, participants spent their four weeks in June striving to answer the overarching question that oriented the seminar: “What makes a place habitable, and what does it mean to inhabit it well?”

In addition to the three-hour daily seminar, students spent about 20 hours each week learning aquaculture at Cuttyhunk Shellfish Farms or working in the island kitchen and gardens.

The open-application program is only part of the Gull Island Institute plan. Reynolds and Keilson are developing “partnership” programs with colleges around the country to host shorter versions of their summer seminar in order to increase access and impact.

As a start-up and non-profit, Reynolds and Keilson are excited and very grateful for the support they received. “We ran the June program on Penikese and Cuttyhunk, and we’re grateful to the Penikese Island
School and Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, which operates Penikese as a wildlife sanctuary and nesting ground for endangered terns and other seabirds.”

Reynolds added that he learned something really important about intellectual collaboration as a student at Falmouth Academy. “What left an impact on me was learning to think together as a class with teachers like Mr. Swanbeck and Mrs. Melillo. I also have very strong memories of the all-school Marconi trip where seniors modeled to younger students like me how to have an idea and realize it together.”
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