I recently caught up with my classmate Tobias Policha (class of 1997), who shared some reflections on how his education at Kimberton has influenced his life. John Graham, for the Alumni Association
John Graham: Tobias, you’ve led a fascinating life since our time as students at Kimberton. Where to begin? You’re working as an educator of botany and ecological science, can you tell me about that?
Tobias Policha: Well, after finishing my PhD research on orchid pollination in Ecuador, I began teaching here at the University of Oregon several years ago and I’m still here! I’ve just been promoted, and this coming year looks to be my most busy because a number of courses that I proposed to teach were accepted, so now I actually have to do the hard work to create them! But I love the process, I find it is one of the most creative things I do, putting together all of the course material in ways that are engaging and educational even for non-biology majors.
J.G.: What courses do you teach, and who are your students?
T.P.: I teach everyone! I have large undergraduate general education courses, I teach in the general biology series, upper division majors courses, graduate courses. Here are some of the names of the courses: Introduction to Ecology; Systematic Botany, Neotropical Ecology, Field Botany, and Plants and Society.
J.G.: Fascinating, I would love to take some of these courses. You are also an avid promoter and educator in community gardening. Do you still offer public workshops or engage with communities outside of your busy university commitments?
T.P.: Well the pandemic has thrown a wrench in everything, right? But yes, I still help organize the local Wildflower Festival at the local arboretum. I have taught several botany workshops for them too. I give presentations to whoever wants them, natural history societies, science pubs…. I volunteer at my local natural area, ecological restoration, that kind of thing.
J.G.: You published an incredible book, Las Plantas de Mindo: A guide to the cloud forest of the Andean Choco. Are you still involved with Ecuador?
T.P.: As a matter of fact, I am planning a study abroad program for students to Ecuador to study biodiversity and tropical ecology. I was also part of a team that won a grant from National Geographic a couple of years ago to do a biological diversity study in Reserva Los Cedros because the area was being illegally targeted by the Canadian mining company Cornerstone Resources. Our findings were so incontrovertible that it turned into several lawsuits. They worked their way up through the appellate courts and last year I had to dust off my Spanish language skills to testify as an expert witness in front of the Ecuadorian Supreme Court on the case. We actually just heard that we won, which is kind of unbelievable considering the various power players involved.
J.G.: That is incredible! After high school you were a serious environmental activist. Now you’re a science professor and getting a new look at how to protect biodiversity in the face of destructive commercial forces. Did some of these impulses come from your education at Kimberton?
T.P.: Ha! Well if you remember, I was some kind of rebel in high school. We had a whole culture of questioning authority, which in those days was misdirected at our faculty, but in truth was all about developing critical thinking skills and the capacity to question and observe reality. I credit my friends for supporting me in those years, but I also credit Waldorf pedagogy and the courses that we took in literature with Susan Neumann and Mary Echlin and Tom Dews for forcing us to question and think about deeper social questions.
J.G.: What else reminds you of your Waldorf education?
T.P.: I’ll tell you something from yesterday. We were taking our four year old son on a hike, which turned into a really long five-hour hike around a lake. Of course this was an epic voyage for our little guy, but he did it! The motivating factor for him were stories. I realized that if he was listening and engaged in a story, then he could walk all day, so I started telling stories. At first I wondered if I knew enough stories. But then I just started doing the same thing that I do in the classroom, which is describing plants and their relationships to their environments. Of course I made it more accessible for a pre-schooler, but essentially I was describing the environment that we were walking through, embellishing a little here and there with cameo appearances from mice or salamanders or ants. You know as well as I do that in Waldorf school, we were constantly learning through stories. It’s a way of seeing the world. It’s what I do now full time in my professional life, and yesterday I realized, it is also a big part of the way that I relate to my son and his expanding world.
Tobias Policha is a senior instructor in the biology department of the University of Oregon, teaching plant science, ecology, and environmental sustainability courses. He attended Kimberton Waldorf School from 1992-1996, ultimately graduating from the Toronto Waldorf School.