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What Time Off Did for Me

Categories: General, Midd Blogosphere


Several weeks ago, I invited students interested in writing guest posts for this blog to contact me. Happily, one of them was Zane Anthony ’16.5, who writes today about his gap semester. —Shirley M. Collado

By 12th grade, I developed a senioritis so bleak and merciless that I felt like a crayon in a crayon box, trapped in darkness and ill fated to an existence of ambiguous pigeonholing and childhood neglect. Flustered and thundering inside, I felt exceedingly tired, wondering whether the few months of summer would be enough for me to recharge and “sort things out.” Too soon, I would find myself once again submersed in gray classroom grinds, committed to a near future in the progressive locale of Addison County, Vermont.

Last fall, I ultimately decided against signing myself off to another demanding, gazillionth-consecutive academic semester that would become roiled with work and worry. Instead, I kicked back for once, trading the immediacy of a hasty, blurry blastoff to an undergraduate career in exchange for a gap semester. And it was the best decision ever.

Today, the leap from high school to college is rumored to be so drastic, so inexorable, that we are losing sight of ourselves. Students consequently derail and belittle their high school endeavors; that is, building an arts center in Senegal becomes more important to their application to Stanford than to the Senegalese. Looking beyond “looking good” on an application and flashing showy undertakings, why not picture your post-secondary-school careers as the perfect opportunity to become the person you have always wanted to be—more active, more outgoing, or perhaps more generous? College is a breeding ground for out-of-comfort-zone experiences that lead you to new philosophies and understandings about yourself. But as I have come to discover, the time between high school and college is too.

Many young people think that life is encoded like alleles in DNA, or determined by set conditions like those of tall, bulky asymptotes. Attending a small, alternative school, I was lucky enough to be routinely discouraged from reverting to a life of normalcy and cookie-cutter approaches to solving problems, whether emotional, creative, or Socratic. I have finally realized that what has messed me up this whole time is that mental image I have of how things are supposed to be.

As leaves tumbled exhausted from branches last August, I fled from course work and towards my lifelong verve for environmentalism, following the winds to the familiar corridors of Echo Hill Outdoor School in Worton, Maryland. For four months, I taught Chesapeake Bay and swamp ecology classes, history lessons, and low- and high-ropes course initiatives with middle school and upper school students. Though busy, I had countless hours every day to be still and reflect.

Life moved slower. I synced with the natural rhythms of the Earth. I plunged into a world released from e-mails, voice mails, clocks, and schedules, nourishing that part of my being that is fed by swims in lakes, walks up mountains, and paddles through the water. Because of my experiences at Echo Hill, the things I want to do most, and the things that are most important to me, have slowly wedged away the rote, senile tasks I have been programmed to perform in secondary school. I can feel myself transitioning out of a dull, amorphous routine, growing blind to what was once familiar and youthful. But it’s funny because I do not feel as if  I am running away or leaving something behind. Instead, I feel that I am stepping towards something else.

My Febmester taught me that I am my own advocate, motivation, and resolve to succeed—this is conceivably the most critical life lesson I have ever learned. The distinctive life is a triumph, not something that will come if I behave decently, or because my father ordered it from the country club caterer. Beyond latching to the highly coveted, recursive web of hard work, thoughtful leadership, and responsible citizenship, I know I need to work fervently towards my goals, and thereby define my odds for success. It means fundamentally questioning where I am going and making sure I am not following the rut left behind by somebody else.

While driving to Middlebury for my Class of 2016.5 February Orientation, I watched vistas and peaks roll past as if torn straight from summery, warm New England tourist journals. I revered the snow-capped mountains, and barns, and wind farms, scampering towards high ground with my confidence shots, hella warm layers, and every book I own on the environment in search of the rest of my life. “Onward to college,” I thought to myself. “And my timing is perfect.” Was your timing perfect? What could time off do for you?

Self-Fulfilling Rhetoric

Categories: General, Midd Blogosphere

Anyone who pays attention to the news gets a regular dose of misery, as media outlets, and the people they quote, seem to vie for more alarming ways to recount the gridlock, stonewalling, and infighting of our nation’s leaders.

I’ve wondered if these situations are as bad as described, or if the descriptions cause the various players to act the way they are depicted (rising or sinking to expectations). What if officials X and Y were called “thoughtful and cooperative” instead? Would they try to be? And if others believed X and Y had been thoughtful and cooperative about something, would that have an impact on how they might approach X and Y in the future, perhaps setting the stage for a more fruitful encounter?

I realize the dynamics are more complex than this, but there’s no doubt that certain rhetoric can help create the very situations we are trying to abate. The national discussions about gun control and immigration reform employ loaded language and assumptions on each side of the debate, which, I believe, are not helping us find solutions to these problems and sometimes make things worse. The same can be said for discussions about same-sex marriage, or decriminalizing drugs, or affirmative action in higher education, or gender identity, or underage drinking, or women serving in combat, or immigration reform. Almost any topic comes with sets of assumptions and related rhetoric that can stop understanding in its tracks. Once people embrace assumptions, true understanding hasn’t a chance. This pattern is woven into the fabric of our society.

This is where I believe Middlebury comes in. We have an important role to play in influencing how our society converses. I think we can lead by example.

We have been making a concerted effort on campus to advance the skill and the art of talking together. We’ve set up safe places, centered on respect, where people can talk directly with one another about whatever is important to them and strive for mutual understanding—from Justalks, which debuted in J-term, to campus Open Forums to public panel discussions and other venues. I have been heartened by how many students have participated, how seriously they have taken their part, and how eager they are to learn.

I see “Middlebury dialoguing” as a hopeful step—one that could change our society’s reckless conversational habits, because when Middlebury students learn to listen to others and to reach deep understanding, they will be able to plant the seeds of understanding wherever they go. These skills, learned and practiced here, can be taught to others and can make ripples that will sustain over time.

I welcome your comments and observations. Do you think college students can raise the level of discourse in this country? Do you have other suggestions that might change the tone of debate here and in the wider community?

—Shirley M. Collado

 

The Big Picture

Categories: General, Midd Blogosphere

This week, my guest blogger is Rachel Sider ’14.  Rachel is a tireless advocate for many causes, and she encourages students to work together on behalf of issues that matter to them. She has worked with such groups as the national student organization J Street U, Community Council, Somali-Bantu ESL Tutoring Group, Juntos, and the Judicial Board Selection Committee.

I always enjoy hearing students’ viewpoints about issues they are concerned about, and would like to encourage any students who are interested in being considered as guest bloggers to contact Jennifer Herrera or me.

—Shirley M. Collado

Growing up reading the newspaper over breakfast each morning and hearing stories about far-off lands from my journalist grandfather cultivated in me a yearning to address global problems. That is ultimately why I chose to attend Middlebury. Despite its rural location, the curriculum, student body, and campus initiatives focus far beyond the surrounding sheep farms and rolling pastures—they aim to address the international community and its challenges.

As a leader on campus I have always admired how my peers maintain this outlook and are able to think globally. In my opinion, that’s the beauty of the liberal arts experience. But while many students come to campus to learn to engage the world, there seems to be a disconnect between this mission and overall leadership in community initiatives. I noticed this trend of disengagement just months into my freshman year as attendance at J Street U meetings dwindled and concern for group sustainability mounted. In talking with other student leaders, I realized that my own concerns were symptomatic of a greater, campus-wide issue; students arrive each fall eager to get involved, yet many lose interest or prioritize other activities as the semester progresses.

Trust me, I understand—I have done the same. I have found myself overwhelmed with class projects and readings and lost sight of the bigger picture. I have groaned at the thought of organizing another J Street U discussion when I still have a Juntos board meeting to attend and Arabic poetry to analyze. Too often I have seen campus clubs and service organizations lack sufficient membership to effectively fulfill their missions, tackle community needs, and cultivate new leaders. Don’t get me wrong—there are thriving groups doing excellent work on campus—but I know there is the potential for even greater success and impact.

As we kick-off the spring semester, I think back to the passion I felt as I perused headlines over pancakes years ago—my belief that justice and coexistence require better knowledge of global social and political realities. I urge students to reconnect with their own interests, wherever they lie in the world, and to find new ways to translate their passions into civic engagement. For me, the liberal arts experience is about utilizing our global mindset and academic insight to facilitate some sort of action. If we are developing the tools to engage the world—creativity, analytical thinking, initiative, excellent communication—why not put them to work now?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you agree or disagree that this is an issue facing our campus? Do you feel that we are becoming more disconnected from our willingness to take action and promote change? How can we hold one another accountable for exercising our liberal arts talents in ways that truly engage our community on campus, throughout the state, and around the globe?

 

It’s That Time of Year

Categories: General, Midd Blogosphere

Welcome back!  I hope you had a rejuvenating holiday break and that you are looking forward to an exciting J-term.n One of the things I love about this time of year is the snow. Many of us longed for it last winter because it was in short supply. This is why I was delighted to return from being away for the holidays to so much of it. In the past two weeks alone we received more snow than we did all last year. I find that the snow-covered ground offers a sparkling brightness to the darkness of winter.

Nevertheless, the winter season and the New Year also bring the prospect of fresh beginnings, opportunities, and time for reflection that typically prompt us to make new resolutions for things to improve or change.

I’d like to share with you some of my resolutions for 2013.

  • Look up at the sky more and take in all that Vermont has to offer.
  • Get better at cross-country skiing.
  • Spend even more time with students.
  • Get regular quality time in with my family, even though they live far away.
  • Teach a strong spring psychology course (Approaches to Psychotherapy).
  • Don’t take myself so seriously and remember to have fun at work.
  • Empower my team and students to create the best student life experience at Middlebury.
  • Exercise, exercise, exercise.
  • Travel to a completely new and exciting place.
  • Get more sleep!

What are your New Year’s resolutions or commitments for 2013? What are you willing to do to follow through on them? What are you willing to do to help someone else follow through on theirs?

Let me know how we can work together to motivate and support each other on sticking to our New Year’s resolutions and commitments for improvement or change.

—Shirley M. Collado

Thank You for the Dark

Categories: General, Midd Blogosphere

When December rolls around, those of us who haven’t lived here long enough to completely acclimate are often surprised, sometimes depressed, by how DARK it can get. By four in the afternoon, it can feel as if the whole world is going down for a long sleep. Rip Van Winkle may have lived in a place like this.

Middlebury is nearly 4 degrees closer to the North Pole than my hometown of Brooklyn, which means that Middlebury’s winter nights are longer than Brooklyn’s. On December 21, the winter solstice and longest night of the year, the sun will set here at 4:18 p.m., and it will set in Brooklyn at 4:32.

But I don’t think those 14 fewer minutes of daylight account for the gloominess that seems to descend over Middlebury in the dim afternoons. Another force of nature adds to the phenomenon: the Champlain Valley is one of the cloudiest places in the U.S., with Burlington receiving only 159 days of sun a year. These two things—murky, overcast skies and quickly descending nights—combine to create a very challenging experience.

That’s where the lights come in. If the nights feel deep and lonely, the glorious lights that blanket trees, glitter in windows, and turn sidewalks into magic do the opposite. They offer a playful tonic against the doldrums and signify hope and human ingenuity. Without the darkness, we would not be able to enjoy the lights. So, this year, I’m giving thanks to the dark.

I’d like to wish you all a very happy winter break, safe travels, and a multitude of lights.

See you next semester.

—Shirley M. Collado

 

 

 

 

A Roomful of People, Thinking and Talking

Categories: General, Midd Blogosphere

Last week, the College held a panel discussion about affirmative action and the case currently before the Supreme Court, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which could overturn affirmative action in higher education. We hoped that the discussion would be sincere and honest—and that people would feel comfortable enough to express themselves, even if that meant saying something unpopular. We also hoped that the audience would remain open-minded and give consideration to the diverse views surely to be expressed.

I think that is exactly what happened. Audience members voiced many differing opinions, sometimes disagreeing with one another, sometimes heatedly so. Yet, for the most part, the audience, panel, and moderators navigated a difficult, deeply personal topic with civility and tolerance. I want to thank those who were challenged by this frank conversation for coming and participating.

Here are some of the questions that were raised:

  • How does the number of students of color compare to other groups on campus?
  • Once students of color have come to Middlebury, is the College doing enough to help them stay at Middlebury?
  • If the Supreme Court overturns affirmative action, how will Admissions be able to achieve a diverse student body?
  • Should admissions decisions be colorblind?
  • What other types of identity groups (e.g., athletes, legacies, cellists, etc.) are targeted in the admissions process?
  • Can admissions decisions be more transparent?
  • How important is Posse to Middlebury?
  • When do we stop taking race into account?
  • What is the fairest way to handle college admissions decisions?
  • What is the collective impact of affirmative action on campuses?
  • Does Middlebury have a standard for diversifying faculty?
  • Is there a conflict between two goals of action: repairing past segregation and discrimination through affirmative action and taking steps to create a diverse campus?
  • By choosing someone based on their race, could they be less qualified?
  • What is the true definition of a Middkid?

For those who were unable to attend, you can view the panel discussion here.  It is clear that more listening, learning, and engaging needs to take place on our campus.  We have work to do, so let’s keep communicating honestly, openly, and respectfully.

I wrote about this topic in an earlier post, and encourage you to read the brief that Middlebury filed along with 32 other colleges, in support of affirmative action, diversity, and inclusion in higher education.

Please add your voice to the conversation. I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s Connect: Say It and Own It

Categories: General, Midd Blogosphere

In the last 15 to 20 years, I’ve noticed that communication between people has become increasingly indirect. There’s been a steady erosion of interpersonal contact in favor of texting, tweeting, facebooking, and e-mailing. We can feel engaged and involved without having to “do” anything.

I remember a time when students couldn’t send me e-mail because e-mail wasn’t available; so they would come to my office or meet me somewhere in person. We would talk, resolve things, meet over a cup of coffee, and forge understanding. And when people needed to talk about something important, there were few options other than to engage with one another directly. It wasn’t possible to deliver messages indirectly the way it is now. And it wasn’t possible to be anonymous.

Is this a sea change?

This societal change has allowed people to avoid taking personal responsibility for conveying their ideas, opinions, and needs. It allows faceless, nameless posts in a universe of empty noise. And it sometimes encourages what I consider irresponsible or avoidant behavior: putting ideas out there without owning what you say. I’m concerned that a time may come when we won’t know any other way. The unfocused, hollow methods of communicating will become the norm, and people will not have the interpersonal skills they need to lead effective lives.

Beyond our communication style, we seem to be losing something else critically important—human connection.  A recent article in the Atlantic cited research showing that although people are highly networked today, they are lonelier than they’ve ever been.

Last week, a group of students came to the first Campus Open Forum to talk about sexual assault. These forums are hosted by Community Council, SGA, and the Office of the Dean of the College and are designed to provide an open space in which members of the campus community can honestly discuss student life topics of interest and any issue they wish to address. As I listened to the discussion, I realized that everyone there was longing for this type of personal interaction. They were there to be heard and to engage candidly with others. That’s the beauty of a residential campus like Middlebury: we can make these connections happen when we choose to.

Lots to talk about

There are many meaningful discussions underway on campus right now: how the endowment is invested, what activism is, sexual assault, quorums at faculty meetings, involvement in student government and other initiatives, faculty/staff-student-community relationships, finding venues for social life, and more. The College is committed to finding ways to encourage members of this community to come together for meaningful conversation and action.

Last year, I encouraged students to turn off their social media for one week to see what it is like. Needless to say, I received a great amount of resistance to this suggestion. But it’s not necessary to “go dark” in order to have face-to-face connections; it is necessary, however, to make these connections a priority instead of following the path of least resistance.

I hope that we can all get into the habit of asking ourselves whether we can hold a particular discussion in person instead of remotely, and I would like to encourage everyone to get involved in the many conversations underway on campus.

I’d love to hear what you think. Do you agree or disagree with me? Do you feel that we are living with more noise and less understanding? And are you willing to put yourself out there in order to have better connections with others on campus?

Other Places for Conversation

  • In addition to the Campus Open Forums, other great conversations happen weekly at the Fireside Chats, hosted by the Institutional Diversity Committee. These are informal discussions with a weekly theme that intersects with identity, diversity, community, or education and the Middlebury experience.
  • SGA holds open office hours each week in Crossroads Café.
  • Community Council holds open meetings on most Mondays at 4:30–5:45 p.m. in Axinn 220.
  • PALANA House hosts topic-based discussions two–three times per year called PALANA Uncensored.
  • Several student organizations are also having topic-based discussions during their weekly meetings.
  • Check Middlink for other upcoming conversations, and post any you’d like to host.
  • Middblog and The Campus offer opportunities for thoughtful discussion, and students are encouraged to submit opinion pieces that foster dialogue.
—Shirley M. Collado