Barbara Borns

Academic Program Advisor Emeritus

According to Academic Program Advisor Emeritus Barbara Borns, there is nothing our current world needs more than the type of education offered at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. That’s why she is proud to have spent more than 25 years working with the Institute as an academic advisor and program leader.

Barbara Borns

From her involvement in the Land Resources, Environmental Monitoring, and Water Resources Management (WRM) programs to her role in the development of a pre-college program focused on Native American students, Borns has been a crucial part of the Institute’s mission to educate and inspire the next generation of environmental leaders.

A chemist and toxicologist by training, Borns joined the staff of the Nelson Institute as a graduate Academic Program Advisor on July 1, 1980.

My first employment goal was to get acquainted with the students, faculty and staff in the graduate programs, so I started learning about them and was so blown away by the extraordinary things people were doing,” said Borns. “One of the things about working at the Nelson Institute is that you get to meet a broad range of people from diverse backgrounds and I just felt that meeting all of these people was exciting.

Borns was deeply invested in the Institute and soon became an administrator for the graduate program, which she says included recruiting students, helping them through the admission process, finding financial support and faculty advisors, supporting them during their programs, and finally keeping in touch with alumni.

Through this leadership role, Borns became a member of several committees, specifically those put in place to aid in student recruitment and retention. One such committee was focused on improving outreach to populations that were often underrepresented at the university. While serving on this committee, Borns traveled the state visiting schools and talking to students about the environment and environmental studies.

One of the interesting things I discovered while visiting high schools is that many students associated environmental studies with birdwatching,” said Borns.  “I would always say, ‘well, yes, it is birdwatching, but it’s also about the air we breathe, the soil we grow our food in, and the purity of water we drink.’ The students would often find that very interesting, but I didn’t receive a lot of strong interest in the program until I visited tribal schools in Wisconsin. While there, I never once had to explain why the environment is important, and that led to making a number of meaningful connections with the Native people around Wisconsin.

For example, in 1990 the Chair of the Lac Courte Oreilles (LCO) tribe reached out to Borns and the WRM workshop leaders to ask them to consider focusing their 1991 study on Blueberry Lake.  That first opportunity to work with the tribe lead to a second summer, in which the LCO worked with the Nelson Institute on a pre-college program designed for tribal youth by 3 WRM students.  The LCO tribal college was a supportive partner and offered their staff and facilities for classes.

At the conclusion of that summer, the Dean of the LCO college encouraged Borns and the Nelson Institute to continue the pre-college program. As a result, Borns continued the program for eight more years expanding it to include all the tribes in the state and beyond. While there are many highlights from this time, Borns notes that in 1998 she received a small grant from the USDA to pursue Environmental Justice topics with the tribes.  That effort resulted in two main projects; a video called “The Center of the Earth” and educational materials for the Bad River Band of Ojibwa relating to protection of their sloughs.

It was a lot of work, but I made a lot of friends, which I have to this day, and a lot of fond memories,” said Borns. “The Nelson Institute, and UW-Madison stepped in to help support the program financially as did the Wisconsin Natural Resources Department.  It really ended up being a very interesting part of my life.

While the program ultimately ended due to a mix of staff and financial constraints in 2000, Borns receive the Friend of Indian Education award from the Wisconsin Indian Education Association in 2001 for her work with the program. Borns says she is honored to have been a part of a pre-college program that offered students an opportunity to explore college, while also facilitating positive connections between the Nelson Institute and Wisconsin’s Native Nations.

It was around this time that Borns became acquainted with Holly YoungBear-Tibbetts, then a geography PhD student. YoungBear-Tibbetts had heard that Borns was working with Native Nations around Wisconsin and was interested in connecting on the topic. Borns and YoungBear-Tibbetts formed a friendship and when YoungBear-Tibbetts graduated and was named Dean of External Relations at the College of Menominee Nation, the two developed a plan to create a new partnership between the campuses.

In 2002 Holly asked me to draft a bridge agreement between the College of Menominee Nation and the UW-Madison-College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), so we worked on that together, said Borns. We had a nice signing ceremony at the University Club. The agreement was originally specific to CALS, but it has since expanded to the full campus and led to a lot of good dialogue and connections between the two institutions.

Borns officially retired in 2003, but has remained closely connected to the Institute as an Emeritus staff member. In fact, when Paul Robbins joined the Nelson Institute as the Director [now Dean] he reached out to staff and faculty asking them for ideas of places he should visit or people he should connect with. Borns wrote back to him and suggested that he visit the tribal colleges around Wisconsin, including LCO and College of the Menominee Nation.

He wrote me back, said it was a great idea, and asked me to come along and arrange the trip,” said Borns. “So, along with a graduate student, the three of us drove up to the Great Lakes Intertribal Council, and then up to the colleges at Lac Courte Oreilles and Menominee. Paul has since taken a lead on this and expanded connections with tribal chairs.  I feel really good if I played any role in getting that relationship and programming going.

In addition to her work with the Native Nations of Wisconsin, Borns remains invested in the alumni and students at the Nelson Institute. She often attends Nelson Institute events and says she enjoys connecting with those in the Nelson community. In fact, she refers to these fond memories and connections as “important events that occurred as a result of being employed at Nelson.” Although she notes that meeting her life partner, Fred Townsend while she was working with the Environmental Monitoring program remains one of the top memories in this category.

Back in 1980, I really felt that joining the Nelson Institute was a good fit for me, and now all of these years later, I still get cards and phone calls from past students,” said Borns. “It feels good to have been a part of it and see all of the alumni around the world doing great things.