Master's Degree Is One of a Kind

East Carolina University offers the nation’s only master of science program in sustainable tourism. The program has just one semester under its belt, but enthusiastic students and faculty advisors have wasted no time tackling remarkable projects.

This degree program is different from more common tourism programs across the country in that it seeks to transform the industry, according to Dr. Pat Long, director of the Center for Sustainable Tourism at ECU, which houses the degree program.

“We can love our places to death,” said Long. “We are looking at energy, waste, water, climate change, and educating travelers on being good stewards of what we enjoy, which sets our program aside.”

The center has developed the following definition of sustainable tourism: Sustainable tourism contributes to a balanced and healthy economy by generating tourism-related jobs, revenues, and taxes while protecting and enhancing the destination’s social, cultural, historical, natural, and built resources for the enjoyment and well being of both residents and visitors.

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Program Director Dr. Joe Fridgen and graduate students Garrett Ziegler, Whit Winslow, and Stefanie Benjamin, come together to improve sustainability within the tourism industry.

“The model has been to tie students, faculty, curriculum, and expertise together across campus,” said Dr. Joseph Fridgen, director of the MS in sustainable tourism program. “Knitting them all together was the way we saw [the program].”

The uniqueness and success of this program is largely attributed to the unusual amount of faculty whose backgrounds lie in areas related to tourism.

“ECU, for whatever reason, has more faculty interested in tourism here independently than anywhere around the country,” said Fridgen “Each faculty bring their expertise to this complex topic.”

It’s the collaborative can-do attitude of faculty across campus that made this degree possible. Students have the opportunity to learn from experts already teaching at ECU in geography, economics, tourism, marketing, and more. The program consists of four core courses, and students choose electives from any college or school on campus based on their specific interests and projects.

“We wanted to take advantage of courses already on campus to share the message of sustainability, share the resources, and share expertise,” said Fridgen.

A group of interested faculty spearheaded the creation of the MS in sustainable tourism program with a broad vision of how to serve and a firm belief in interdisciplinary education. It took faculty members throughout campus roughly five years to complete the approval process, but students were enrolling even before the program was officially approved.

“It’s the first and only in the nation and once it gets out there, it will bring students from all backgrounds and offer ECU a real banner program for quality students,” said Whitney Knollenberg, a graduate student enrolled in the MS in sustainable tourism program who received her undergraduate degree from Michigan State University. “This program makes ECU more credible.”

Some of the students came to ECU in fall 2009, a semester before the program’s approval process was complete, and were willing to start with elective courses.

“I went to the University of Florida and then moved to New York City and was working as an event planner,” said Stefanie Benjamin, a graduate student in the program. “I searched Google and found the program and put all my eggs in one basket and came down here for the program.”

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Dr. Pat Long serves as the director for the Center for Sustainable Tourism, which houses the first master of science degree program in sustainable tourism.

The program continued to draw prospective students from all over the country with an array of experiences and interests, but there is one common thread: the tourism industry.

“This is a truly competent group [of students]. They are interested, passionate, and focused on the subject matter,” said Long. “They are all willing to jump into projects and willing to take on big tasks. They are the face of the center.”

An interdisciplinary Faculty Oversight Committee with representatives from the College of Business, Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences, College of Human Ecology, and College of Health and Human Performance guides the degree program and its students with their varying backgrounds including recreation and leisure studies, hospitality management, geography, economics, and sustainable tourism.

“There are so many people involved, from guest lectures to people teaching from all over campus and in the industry,” said Knollenberg. “It speaks a lot to ECU faculty.”

The group of five graduate students has already taken on several groundbreaking projects. They are committed to serving not only statewide, but also nationally and globally. Also, as sustainability of college campuses has become a national concern, the students and faculty in the programs are addressing this issue at ECU.

“People have been intrigued and appreciative that we are carrying the sustainability banner,” said Fridgen. “It just resonates in the region and across the state.”

As part of the Planning and Policy of Sustainable Tourism course, students are shaping Greenville as a sustainable destination and the hub city in the area. The students have created a resource guide and set of recommendations used to achieve a desirable level of sustainability distributed throughout the region.

“The program is making a contribution to the local community,” said Garrett Ziegler, a graduate student in the program who received an undergraduate degree from Pennsylvania State University and is studying renewable energy in the ski industry. “People are looking to us as an authoritative figure on sustainability.”

Other local projects include studies on sustainability of second-home owners in Pender, Currituck, and Brunswick counties, analyzing the sustainability of Beaufort, branding the Outer Banks as a sustainable destination, and studying the impact the Andy Griffith Show has on Mount Airy.

“It is our responsibility to make tourism as positive as possible,” said Fridgen. “People, resources, and culture are precious also and [the program] takes care of that as well.”

On a broader scale, Knollenberg has written the United States Traveler Care Code, which provides 10 ways to travel with care and serves as a pledge to be “green” when traveling. Delta and Hertz sponsored the project.

“It is a list of actions travelers can take to be more responsible,” said Knollenberg. “Other countries have them and we needed one for domestic travel.”

Other projects include a study of biodiesel, a series of Webinars through Miles Media Inc. that covers topics on the United States Traveler Care Code, small businesses and tourism, and the benefits of renewable energy, a social media project that promotes sustainable tourism in effort to create a greater impact, minimizing carbon footprints when traveling abroad, and the study of film-induced tourism.

“Tourism is a powerful intervention that changes people and destinations,” said Fridgen. “By having people exposed to these approaches, asking the right questions, and monitoring the changes we’re prescribing, we’ll know how we’re making an improvement.”