UWF Alumni Magazine: The Benefits of a Beautiful Campus – UWF Community Stays Connected in the Outdoors 

The article below was written for the cover of the University of West Florida’s Fall 2021 alumni magazine, Connection.

Read the issue online.


Tucked behind the University of West Florida Police Department in a greenhouse that was previously used by campus landscaping staff, you can usually find Monica Woodruff, ’23. Last spring, she would stop into the greenhouse most days between classes, sometimes taking along a friend to help with projects. There was soil to mix, rows and rows of tomato seeds to plant and a research project that involved growing tabletop aeroponic kale. Sweaty, dirty and armed with an eclectic playlist, Woodruff would lose herself in the physical repetition and sunshine. On Fridays, she would celebrate the end of a long week with a walk to pick blueberries near the University Commons.

UWF’s 1,600-acre campus, bordered by two rivers and a coastal bay and recently designated a  Tree Campus Higher Education by the Arbor Day Foundation, proved to be a welcome respite for Woodruff. An environmental management major, Woodruff was planning to study abroad in Wales last academic year, but like so much of regular life, those plans were put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Living on campus and having classes online turned out to be very stressful for me – being in one little room, day in and day out,” she said. “I found myself needing to actively search for something to become involved with. I always knew I was interested in the environment and helping people. I just didn’t yet know how it all connected.”

She would find that connection, along with a much-needed dose of wellbeing, through the UWF Community Garden. Led by Dr. Greg Tomso, director of the Kugelman Honors Program, and Chasidy Hobbs, lecturer in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, the garden encompasses about 2 acres of land behind the WUWF Public Media building on the Pensacola campus. Depending on the time of year, you can find citrus, figs, pomegranates, native pears, olives, mayhaws, tomatoes, lettuces, greens, herbs, grapes and beets being grown and harvested.

Woodruff’s work in the greenhouse later translated into planting the tomato plants she started as seeds. She would spend mornings in the gardens weeding beds, “just waiting to spot shiny new tomatoes.”

In March, Woodruff worked with Hobbs and other students to plant 200 new trees and bushes on UWF’s Pensacola campus as part of the Argos’ Edible Campus program. They hope to reach a total of 1,000 fruiting trees and bushes on campus by 2024, providing free access to fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables.

The garden and edible campus program help to combat food insecurity and make UWF a healthier place. The garden’s gathering and teaching pavilion, shade structures and new solar installation make it a destination for students, faculty, staff and community members seeking balance, time outside and healthy food. Interest in garden work days surged during the pandemic, with more than 300 volunteers routinely showing up to roll up their sleeves and take home to eat what they harvested.

“In the garden, you are in your own 20-foot bubble yet working alongside others, outside in glorious weather, harvesting organic food with new friends,” Tomso said. “It’s become a much-needed place for people seeking connection – with nature and with one another. We have this incredible natural resource here, and we are starting to see the fruits of that labor (pun intended!)”

Dr. Michele Manassah, executive director for UWF Counseling and Health Services, said a sense of community and connectedness – along with a healthy dose of fresh air – are key recommendations for coping during a period of prolonged social distancing.

She easily rattles off a list of recommendations for taking a “nature time out” on or near campus: hiking on the Edward Ball Nature Trail through Thompson’s Bayou, taking a walk through the campus Camellia Garden, playing a round of disc golf on the campus’ 21-hole course, exercising or going to the beach.

“There is a growing body of research to show that nature is medicine; that being outside can significantly reduce stress and improve your mood,” Manassah said. “We knew even before the academic year began that we would need to focus on a holistic approach to mental health. We’re being told all the things we can’t do, but instead we want to focus on what we can do. We are lucky at UWF to have so much easy access to the natural world.”

Michael Morgan, UWF’s coordinator of outdoor recreation, echoes the benefits of getting outside, trying something new and participating in something physical.

“I don’t think you could walk across campus last year and not hear the discs hitting the chains on the disc golf course,” he said. “We found ways to create safety protocols that allowed us to be open and active throughout that quarantine time, and everyone was really taking advantage of all our outdoor activities.”

Morgan said more than 200 people lined up to take part in a Halloween hike through the campus nature trails last October, almost doubling participation for the annual 20-minute, spooky nighttime tradition. Spring brought an easing of restrictions, and Morgan planned popular local adventures for students, including backpacking trips, canoeing on Thompson Bayou, caving in Florida Caverns State Park, tubing in Blackwater River and an Argos Go Green campus clean-up event.

Marketing major Haylee Garner, ’24, was a first-year student last fall, living in an off-campus apartment. She participated in a tubing trip with UWF Outdoor Adventures in the spring.

“Some people came with friends, and some people came by themselves, but by the end, everyone was hanging out, floating down the river together,” she said. “It felt really good to connect with other people who were also interested in the outdoors.”

Biology major Jackson Reimer, ’21, also took advantage of UWF’s beautiful campus and began working on a project with Morgan to install more trail markers, signage and educational information throughout the campus nature trails. Funded by the university’s Green Fee, a 75 cents-per-credit-hour student fee established to support sustainability initiatives, they hope to increase accessibility on the trails.

Reimer also found an escape from the solitude of his apartment through research with Dr. Susan Piacenza, assistant professor in the Department of Biology. About once a month throughout last academic year, Reimer conducted sea turtle surveys using a video camera system at piers and reefs across the Panhandle. He was also a regular at the Community Garden, weeding, mowing and performing general maintenance. He built a lean-to and worked on irrigation and plumbing projects.

“I needed that hands-on work – a break from the computer and a way to actually experience life,” he said. “Outside, listening to the bugs and birds with the sun hitting you – it was a sense of normalcy and a much-needed boost.”

Photo credit: University of West Florida