Yale student creates his own path through the campus landscape

By Jon Atherton

Ryan Simpson (Yale College ’17) was one of the first students to sense a new opportunity for experimentation and learning on the vast 136 acres of West Campus’ natural landscape. Over nearly 4 years, the environmental engineering and global affairs major committed his time, energy and physical graft to realize his own ideas for the future, and in so doing played an influential role in helping to re-imagine the campus space. Ryan exemplifies the student experience at Yale: a scholar whose dedication, commitment and inspiration has been deeply felt by the community, and whose time here has, in turn, provided readiness and direction in the next exciting chapter in his career.  

As he prepares to enter the Masters of Science program in Food Policy and Applied Nutrition at Tufts University, we spoke to Ryan about his time at West Campus.

“Tell me about the early days. What was the attraction to West Campus?

My life at Yale had some ups and downs after a soccer injury, and this place really became a home for me. It was a blank canvas where I could try new things – where the environment and entrepreneurship meet each other. I came out here for the creativity, and I’ve grown as the place has grown – from a farm with fruits and vegetables, to a point today where the whole campus landscape is opening up for scholarship.

This place is part of me. I dived in and it’s been worth it to grow as part of it.

Working with Director Justin Freiberg, you gave limitless energy and ideas to the planning of the new Yale Landscape Lab. How did it all get started for you?

I started an agricultural project in high school to build an irrigation system in rural Nigeria. We needed space to prototype it, but couldn’t get traction in New Haven. I showed Justin the blueprints, and he encouraged me to give it a shot. We ran water up and down the hill beside the urban farm, collecting rainwater in a cistern and using a hand pump to create enough pressure to move the water.

From there, with input from other students, I worked with Justin on an extensive plan for developing the campus landscape. As it developed so did my ideas and curriculum. I started looking more specifically at food, starvation and war within the global affairs domain. I began exploring small-scale urban agriculture in my sophomore year and worked with Justin on proposals to realize the potential of the West Campus landscape as a working laboratory.

In my junior year I took urban agriculture and starvation a step further. Studying in Singapore, I realized that many of the challenges revolved around the need for clean water, and revisited my earlier blueprints for the irrigation project, pulled the idea together in class, and got a provisional patent for an ultraviolet water disinfection system. 

We’ve been able to put numerous projects in place. We cleared an acre and a half of land! We built a new fireplace, a brownstone oven, and have solarized large areas to prevent invasive plant species. This past summer we built a stone retaining wall at the hillside next to the barn, so we have more space to eat together or screen movies. We saved an apple tree that was here 120 years ago when pig farmers were here. Recently, our biggest project was terracing the hillside next to the urban farm so the nursing students have a series of berms and hillside terraces where they can grow their medicinal herbs. We’ve changed the landscape dramatically.

Your experience here has touched a lot of different elements of the landscape. What are the things that stand out?

I go by what my Mom always told me: “You’re only as good as what your two hands can make for you, and what your mind can think for you.” It wasn’t good enough to be creative here, you have to actively do what you want to create. I got through Yale on a generous scholarship, and a lot of my education has been because of athletic ability, but when I got here I got hurt. West Campus was the one place I could always come back to and feel like I could be creative and able to do something. I honed masonry, carpentry, farming, and landscaping skills – you name it, I’ve pretty much done it! [Just don’t ask him to fix a golf cart!] I’ve gained management experience too – managing people, working in partnership with Justin and campus Administration, managing the fact we have no electricity here at the barn.

When we first met you thought that more students should know about this place. What would you tell them now?

The place is growing, and people are beginning to understand the importance of food, agriculture and the environment to the way we live. The work I’ve done here shows you don’t always know what to do. I had no idea how to even work a shovel - my hands were ripped raw at first! You don’t have to be afraid of not knowing how to do things. It’s okay not to have the answers, to not know what you want to do.

If you have a mind that’s willing to create, there’s 136 acres here. 
The question becomes: what do you want to do?

There are no constraints of the classroom or sports team here. Rarely do we have the opportunity to create with no boundaries – where we can take something and transform it into something else. There’s power to unconstrained creativity and being able to look at something and make it yours. I found a lot of peace here, made a home at Yale, and it accelerated my own progress. I want other students to make this space their home too. Once they take the first step, the rest is easy.

You’ve really made a mark here, Ryan. Everyone at West Campus wants to thank you for your inspiration, hard work and enthusiasm. You’re one of the pioneers, and an inspirational example to students and colleagues from across Yale.

I’m going to miss it here. I want to come back in the future and be happy that more students have changed the landscape. Anyone can come here – if you’re interested in food systems, the arts, or just to gather round the fire.

We’ve made a space that caters to everyone, and where anyone can make it their own. 

That’s the power of this place.”