TRAVERSE CITY — John Lutchko grew up surrounded by fresh water.
“I grew up in Traverse City,” he said. “The bay was my backyard. My family had a cottage on Lake Leelaunau. I spent every summer there.”
Now Lutchko, 31, is one of the first area college students who will parlay a lifelong love of H2O into a bachelor’s degree in fresh water science and sustainability. It’s an opportunity available through a new partnership between Northwestern Michigan College and Western Michigan University.
The new degree program officially launches in September, but WMU will offer two courses toward the program through its Traverse City-based Extended University Programs division starting May 5.
Hans Van Sumeren, director of NMC’s Great Lakes Water Studies Institute, said those classes filled up with interested students weeks ago, and college officials are talking about opening up more sessions.
The new degree program should offer students ample professional options after graduation, especially as fresh water becomes an increasingly limited natural resource, Van Sumeren said. He pointed to the relationship between water, food, and energy and said you cannot alter one of those things without directly impacting the others.
“It takes energy and water to grow food,” he said. “We’re going to have to find ways to produce foods that are more efficient in the use of water. It also takes an enormous amount of water to produce energy, and a tremendous amount of energy to use water.”
Van Sumeren said such challenges are not going away, and he expects to see more universities create degree pathways like the partnership between NMC and WMU.
Lutchko, of Traverse City, completed a fresh water studies associate degree at NMC in December and started pursuing a marine engineering technologies assoicate degree. He’s also taking classes through WMU to work toward a bachelor’s degree.
Lutchko described the collaboration between NMC and WMU as “seamless.”
Erica Plesha, 40, of Frankfort, is following a similar degree path. Plesha finished a fresh water studies associate degree last spring, and she said the WMU classes she’s taken expand upon what she previously learned.
“You learn the basics in the introduction, but then I took an ecology class at Western, and it used all the basics I learned at NMC and built upon them,” she said.
Lutchko hopes to finish his degree in two years, and then work in either freshwater advocacy or natural resources management.
He’s willing to leave Traverse City to pursue his career, but he ultimately wants to end up back in the Great Lakes region. He recognized the importance of the region after living in Phoenix for four years. The arid city was a far cry from the sparkling blue lakes and bays where he spent his youth.
“If there was one thing that sort of put how important this region is in perspective, it was living in the desert,” he said.