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Editor’s Note: The Conversation

ed note_CMYKuIt was nearly a year ago when I reached out to Dena Simmons ’05—a beautiful writer and fiercely intelligent young woman who works at the Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale—to see if she would be interested in writing a feature essay on what it means to confront racism in America today.

For our fall 2015 issue, I wanted Dena to draw on both her own life experiences and those experiences lived by the students, teachers, and activists she’s encountered in her career. “I want this essay to speak to every reader,” I said, “and to be clear that this is an issue that involves all of us.”

The resulting work was her brilliant “We Cannot Afford to Walk Away,” whose title is drawn from this passage in the essay: We cannot afford to walk away, to turn off our screens, and to carry on with our comfortable lives. None of us, especially those in power, have the right to be comfortable. It’s through discomfort we learn and transform most. Questioning, challenging, and curbing racial injustices is everyone’s job.

A few weeks after we published Dena’s essay, Middlebury held the first of three campus gatherings in which issues of race, inclusivity, institutional history, free speech, and cultural appropriation were talked about, wrestled with, and argued over; tears of anguish and tears of frustration were shed. And while the catalyst for the meetings was one incident, it became clear to all that we were talking about more than an isolated occurrence. Questioning, challenging, and curbing racial injustices is everyone’s job.

For this issue’s cover story, we hired a dear friend, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer John H. White, to help us continue the conversation that began with Dena’s essay. While on campus he spoke to a crowded Wilson Hall, and among his inspirational words of wisdom was the affirmation that we all strive to “recognize the somebody-ness of everybody.” It is what we must do if we are to learn and transform and become a community where, as Laurie Patton has so eloquently stated, inclusivity is not a problem to solve but an everyday ethic.

Let’s Talk About Race

GroupStudents

(Front Row) Shuba Maniram ’17, (Second Row) Molly McShane ’16, Nia Robinson ’19, Charles Rainey ’19, (Back Row) Debanjan Roychoudhury ’16, Claudia Huerta ’18

As racial conflict unfolds on college campuses across the country, Middlebury wrestles with tensions of its own.

Last fall, the Black Student Union at Middlebury organized a solidarity blackout in support of Black students at Middlebury and on other campuses around the United States. A photograph taken in front of Carr Hall shows hundreds of Middlebury students gathered on an unseasonably warm November evening. By designed necessity (“It is essential we center Black bodies and experiences in this movement,” the BSU wrote on its Facebook page), persons identifying as Black stood in the front; behind them stood white students, faculty, staff.

Two weeks later, the Middlebury community would be looking inward after an incident in a College dining hall. A white first-year student had worn a sombrero to dinner and when asked by a fellow student, a Latino senior, why she had chosen to wear it, her frivolous answer was too difficult for him to ignore. His attempt to explain how her actions were hurtful to him—that within the current context she was appropriating a culture, his culture—were met, those present say, with indifference. The resulting argument spilled over and ignited on social media, particularly the anonymous forum Yik Yak, and though students were leaving the following week for Thanksgiving break, the College administration arranged a pair of town hall-style forums—immediately before and immediately after the break—to discuss the issues of cultural appropriation, community standards, freedom of expression, and what it means to be an inclusive community. By the second forum—a capacity event in Dana

Auditorium, with scores of people turned away—it was clear that while the dining hall incident may have been the spark that ignited the discussions, there were broader, deeper, and far more entrenched issues to deal with. On December 11, a third forum was held in Mead Chapel. And while the gathering opened with a tearful apology from the first-year student who had worn the sombrero, the rest of the 90-minute conversation moved beyond any one incident and spoke to those broader, deeper, and more entrenched issues, feelings, and states of mind and being.

For some people in attendance at any of the events, hearing about racial (and sexist, homophobic, and ethnic) offenses, both explicit and implicit, on the campus was a revelation, as was the pain, frustration, and anger expressed by students of color. No less palpable were the exhausted, at times defiant, statements from students of color that it should not be their sole responsibility to educate their classmates (or professors) on why they were hurt, why they were angry, why they were aggrieved.

Claudia Huerta, a sophomore from Manhattan, says that the town hall gatherings frightened her. “They opened my eyes to the realization that a lot of people on this campus had not been having these conversations. And it scares me because I think I took it for granted that people were talking about these things.”

An academic year that began with Middlebury’s new president expressing the fervent desire that the community consider diversity and inclusivity not as problems to be solved but as an everyday ethic, a way of living our lives, had found the College entering 2016 with a renewed focus on what it would take to turn that aspiration into reality.

***

The racial tensions that exist at Middlebury are not occurring in a vacuum. Across the country, college and university campuses are home to protests, sit-ins, and demands for change led by students of color. For every situation that has captured the nation’s attention—Missouri, Yale, Princeton—many more unfold weekly.

To better understand what is happening at Middlebury, I spoke to dozens of people—students, faculty, administrators, staff. The students of color I interviewed expressed varying degrees of satisfaction with the College, but to a person they spoke to the difficulties, the challenges of being a minority in a very white state and at a largely homogenous institution. (While the percentage of American students of color at Middlebury has steadily increased over the years to 24 percent of the student body, that still means that for these students more than three-quarters of their peers—and a far greater percentage of the faculty—don’t look like them, haven’t experienced life as they have, and often are unaware of what this can mean.)

Shuba Maniram, a junior at Middlebury, grew up in the South Bronx, the child of immigrants from Trinidad. Neither of her parents went to college, so the idea of going away to school wasn’t on her radar growing up, but when she was in sixth grade her teacher outfitted the entire class with T-shirts that read “College Student” on the front and “Class of 2017” on the back.

This teacher was Dena Simmons ’05 (see p. 11), and the following year, Simmons brought Maniram and the rest of the class to visit Middlebury. (“Without Dena I wouldn’t be here,” Maniram says. “And by here I mean college as much as I mean Middlebury.”) Simmons continued to mentor Maniram throughout high school. They shared similar upbringings, and Simmons constantly challenged Maniram to push herself, to imagine a place beyond what was comfortable. When she was accepted to Middlebury, Maniram says the demographics of Vermont and Middlebury worried her, but she idolized Simmons and felt that she had her example to live up to.

But she wasn’t prepared for what awaited her. It wasn’t just the terminology and mechanics of higher education that baffled her (see p. 44); she couldn’t relate to many of her new classmates, nor they to her.

“I vividly remember a moment early in my freshman year when a couple of white girls came up to me and another student of color in the dorms and asked us to show them how to twerk. We said no, so they proceeded to twerk and laugh in front of us. And that was my introduction to what I would come to face at Middlebury.

“And I feel like that moment is symbolic. I didn’t know what microaggressions were—I had never heard the term and wouldn’t have understood the concept then—but that was the first of many times when people made assumptions about me because of what I looked like.”

Maniram and all of the students of color I spoke to say that these assumptions are insulting and invalidating and have not been limited to the dorms, dining halls, or social spaces; for many, the worst microaggressions come in the classroom, when peers or faculty have turned to the one Black person in the room when topics such as slavery, poverty, or urban blight are being discussed. Sometimes the person is explicitly asked to explain a culture; often it’s just a look, a sideways glance that is subtle but no less implicit.   

“Differences in race and class can reinforce alienation, not just here, but anywhere,” says Roberto Lint Sagarena, an associate professor of American studies and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. “But race can compound this feeling, because often it’s a visual difference; it almost becomes exponential in terms of feelings of alienation. And this sets a tone so that students are sensitized to microaggressions. You’re already feeling out of place, like you might not belong, so these slights become magnified. And that increases that sense of pain. A look that might or might not have been something racist or problematic can be interpreted that way.”        

First-year student Nia Robinson came to Middlebury because she wanted to be around students who had experienced life differently than she had. A Posse scholar from Chicago, Robinson attended a high school with twice as many students as Middlebury. She has two younger half-siblings, and she says that when she would go places with them in Chicago, she’d often be mistaken for a nanny; her stepfather is white. So, she says, she was under no illusions that going to a school in rural Vermont wouldn’t be a challenge; yet she says now she can’t think of a day when she hasn’t questioned why she’s here. “I’m having such a disconnect because I feel like people aren’t willing to work to understand other people. There are a lot of people here who don’t understand me, and it’s not because I’m a complicated person,” she says. “It’s because we don’t have those conversations. I care a lot about Middlebury, and some days it feels like most people don’t care enough to at least try and understand why a segment of this student body is unhappy. 

“But at the same time, I understand that not everyone is having my experience, and for some people, Middlebury is perfect. They think, ‘We don’t have to make it better. It’s great.’”

***

At the conclusion of the third town hall meeting in December, President Laurie Patton stood at the front of Mead Chapel and addressed the community. “I have seen remarkable intentionality and thoughtfulness in this conversation—and I have also seen ways in which we could improve both in our mindfulness of each other, as well as our hopes for the future.”

She then stated five guiding principles that she hoped would help the community to move forward. “We must make sure that no single group bears the burden of difference, but that we all aspire to inclusivity—those of us who are not part of historically underrepresented groups need to stand in alliance with those who are; we need to not be afraid to make mistakes and engage with others; I want us to have an open and complex understanding of free speech—free speech is not the opposite of inclusivity; the very way we create a more inclusive community is by exercising free speech and continuing to create understanding even in the midst of tension-filled conversations; [there needs to be] on-going reflection about structural bias. We have been talking about structural issues in which racism and other forms of exclusivity are built into our systems. I think this is the biggest challenge for all of us.”

When Patton talks about inclusivity, she’s addressing a very important distinction with diversity. Roberto Lint Sagarena says, “Diversifying our student bodies doesn’t necessarily do away with issues of difference and the challenges that come with them—being on campus doesn’t automatically make you feel like you’re a part of campus. So how does campus culture change to reflect a pluralism in the student body? Is it a matter of simple assimilation and everybody becomes a part of the same? Or is it an acceptance of difference and a respect for difference, where one can have an affinity group and be with one’s own, but also move beyond that and be accepted by all?”

Leslie Harris, an associate professor of history and African American studies at Emory University, says that these issues are not new, and that she’s struck by the similarities in student demands today and the demands at the dawn of higher education integration 50 years ago.

She points out that many segments of society in the United States have aggressively resegregated and that when students arrive at college they are coming to live in a community that, by design, is just as aggressive in its integration. And there are more students—approximately 14 million 18-24 year olds are in baccalaureate programs now, compared to 2 million in 1949—which means more students from diverse backgrounds. “And you can’t just add and stir,” she says. “It’s the work of institutions to think through what it means for all of these people to come together. You have to be flexible—flexible but strong.” 

Katy Smith Abbott, the dean of the College, agrees. Throughout last summer and into the fall, she worked with Miguel Fernandez, Middlebury’s chief diversity officer, and Andi Lloyd, vice president for academic affairs, on an initiative that would help students become more resilient, and she says that it’s dawned on her that these same lessons can be applied to the institution.

“We should hold ourselves institutionally to the same standard,” she says. “What does it mean to be an excellent institution with a deep history and many traditions, some of which are not that great, and to say, ‘You know what? We can be excellent and we can still move from our original shape to something new.’”

“Racism in this country has been very creative,” says senior Debanjan Roychoudhury. “It’s been very willing to change and adapt, so we need to be similarly willing to adapt and be very creative in how we address these issues. That’s who we are! Let’s use our creativity to fundamentally shape the way we think about inclusion.”

Already this year, Patton and the administration have implemented a number of programs and initiatives that she feels will make Middlebury a more inclusive place. She’s engaged a pair of consultant groups to lead diversity workshops with offices that interact most closely with students and to assist in recruiting a diverse faculty applicant pool; she’s facilitated discussions between the Board of Trustees and African American studies scholars (including Leslie Harris), who specialize in structural bias; she’s directed the Athletics Department and the Department of Public Safety to examine inclusive practices in their respective areas; she’s approved the hiring of two full-time counseling fellows for the health center; and she created a new organization (Alliance for an Inclusive Middlebury) of faculty, students, and staff, who are charged with proposing policies and creating spaces across campus to “make sure we are as inclusive as possible in all facets of our lives together.” And Patton and other administrators and faculty  have been spending many hours meeting with students individually and in groups.

During a conversation with Katy Smith Abbott, I remark that the College has begun to address these issues in a far more rapid manner than is typical in higher education, when institutional change is often tracked in geologic time.

She pauses.

“I think it depends on who you’re talking to. I would say yes, that’s the way it feels to me. I think that’s the way it feels for others who work in student life and work in administrative roles where we’re focusing, daily, on tangible programmatic or policy or institutional change,” she says.

“The tension for me is that I’ve heard very consistently from students —all different voices—saying that the College isn’t doing enough. That’s the piece I struggle with. It’s very real for them. Their experience is absolutely genuine and authentic. And what we’re doing is not visible. Somehow it doesn’t feel like change.”

***

Tiff Chang is one student who feels that Middlebury is neither moving fast enough—nor far enough. Chang, a junior Feb from Marin County, California, says that during most of her first year at Middlebury, she was one of those students who thrived. But then, she says, she began to understand that other students were having very different experiences. She points to a collision of events that affected her thinking—national news coverage of Ferguson and her subsequent participation in the Middlebury Ferguson Action Group; friends leaving the College, citing structural oppression; her experience “with queer marginalization on campus and existing as a queer woman of color in student government.” She adds, “And, basically, finding out how deeply imbedded these systems are in all of us.”

She found the town hall meetings to be not only unproductive but a perpetuation of the racism and alienation that students of color were already experiencing on campus. She says there needed to be apologies on both the institutional and personal level, and that the meetings, as constructed, created a space that did not recognize that students of color have different needs than white students. 

She quickly acknowledges that the efforts of Patton and the College are sincere, that Patton cares deeply about the issues, and that people are working really hard to implement change. But to her, the efforts are inadequate. She urges Middlebury to think beyond “one-off items like panels and lectures that serve a self-selected audience, and consider systems-based change.” For instance, she wants the College to hold a mandatory annual retreat for faculty and staff that addresses issues of social justice, cultural competency, new teaching pedagogy, slow learning, and more.

Chang, who has been a co-chair of Middlebury’s Community Council this year, has spoken passionately and publicly about these issues that are clearly very important to her, and she says that if the College embraced “a really deep, committed understanding of inclusivity” it could distinguish itself from its peers. “Inclusivity is the new sustainability,” she says. “Let’s employ forward-thinking policies and practices around inclusivity and lead by example.”

It’s hard to argue with the goal, but some whom I’ve talked to worry that there’s not room to disagree about how to set that example, and that rhetoric on campus has quickly moved into a binary “us vs. them” construct. Said one student of color whom I talked to: “I am so relieved that we are moving beyond any one incident and are addressing bigger issues, but I worry that too often experiences are becoming generalized, that people are being put into categories—‘all of you’ or ‘all of us.’ I recognize that a lot of the entrenched problems on this campus are the legacy of systemic oppression, but one of the things I struggle with is how to express solidarity with a group of people, my people, while still expressing myself as an individual.”

This student added: “I think a lot of what’s troubling to a number of students of color is that we’re afraid to throw each other under the bus by saying something wrong because you want to stand in solidarity. But the truth is, it’s impossible to agree on all of these things.” 

***

Fear is a word that has come up again and again in my conversations. There’s the fear of being subjected to further racist insults, be they implicit or explicit. (Nia Robinson speaks of returning to her hall one night to find the word “Negroes” written multiple times on a dry-erase board attached to a friend’s door.) And if you’re white there is the fear of saying the wrong thing, of being branded a racist. “Being called a racist is so powerful,” says Miguel Fernandez. “It shuts everything down, the conversation stops. All of a sudden you’re not talking about whatever offended the person of color. You’re arguing about whether someone is or isn’t a racist.”

One white student I spoke to says that she has put herself out there, and she’s been burned; burned to the point she was hesitant to talk to me for this story; she says she’s unlikely to engage with these issues publicly anymore—at least not at Middlebury.

“I recognize that the pain of people in this community is very real, I recognize that the anger is real,” she says. “The sentiments are honest and heartfelt, but I’ve found that it’s too difficult to have constructive conversations because the passion is too great, the anger is too great. I’ve found that too often we each focus on the righteousness of our side of the argument, and then we’re not focusing on the argument itself.”

As an example she points to a series of episodes involving the student newspaper, the Middlebury Campus. In February, a collection of cultural organizations sent an email to the student body calling on the Campus to make amends for “continuously publish[ing] articles that have both subtly and explicitly reinforced the marginalization of several groups” at Middlebury. The letter specifically condemned the decision to publish several op-eds, which contained views that the letter writers felt “actively harm[ed] and systematically silenc[ed] minority groups at the College.”

In response, the Campus editors penned a pair of op-eds (“A Paper for the People” and “A More Inclusive Campus”) in which they defended their decision (and right) to publish opinion pieces—in these cases contributed pieces—that run the risk of offending readers as long as standard journalistic guidelines were enforced. The editors also acknowledged that the paper “suffers acutely from a lack of racially diverse voices” and vowed to find ways to make the newspaper more reflective of the entire community. (Full disclosure: I serve as an advisor to the Campus.)

This issue with the Campus does seem to illustrate a troubling point, perhaps the one opinion shared by most: students are feeling pushed toward silence. There’s the young woman and others who fear the consequences of expressing challenging opinions, and there are the organizations who believe such expression, as it was conducted, systematically silences minority groups.

One student suggests—and others agree—that 90 percent of the student body is not engaging in substantive conversations about race. She says that about 10 percent of the student body could be described as activists when it comes to racial discourse. About 30 percent don’t think about the issue at all. And then there’s 60 percent who are very aware of the tension on campus, but are loathe to speak, at least on any meaningful level; the risk is too great.

So a result can be silence that is just as uncomfortable and perhaps just as damaging. And this worries Nia Robinson. “I know that there are a lot of people who either have good intentions or they empathize with students of color, but they’re not being vocal about it,” she says. “And I so badly want them to speak up because I’m sure they have thoughts and ideas that are completely different from mine, ideas that will challenge me, and that’s a good thing. I come back to a quote from the writer Audre Lorde—‘Your silence will never save you.’”

Shuba Maniram says that she’s found she can have better conversations if she starts by expressing how a statement made her feel, “because somebody may know what it means to be hurt.” (Or at least that’s the hope: See Debanjan Roychoudhury on p. 40) “If I can get you to focus more on how you’ve made me feel instead of characterizing you in a certain way, then our conversation has a relational aspect. If it goes the other way, that’s when people silence themselves.” But sometimes—often, for many—the burden of these conversations is too great. It’s what Patton referred to when she said, “We must make sure that no single group bears the burden of difference.”

“Yeah, there are times when I have to step back,” admits Maniram. “Ultimately, I’m not here to teach people how to be a better person in the world. I’m here to learn. I’m here to get an education; it shouldn’t be on me to always be educating others.”

Anna Iglitzin agrees. A junior Feb from Seattle, Iglitzin is part of a cohort of white students who have formed an allyship group. They’ve struggled to come up with a name for their effort—“Whites Against Racism” had been mentioned, but some disliked the militarism of the acronym so they’ve settled on “Wonderbread: White Students for Racial Justice.” They write op-eds for the Campus, addressing issues of “white privilege, written by white students, predominately for white students,” and they hold regular gatherings, where they attempt to engage previously reticent people in uncomfortable conversations. The thinking is that white students will feel less vulnerable expressing their feelings, their confusion, to their white peers; they’ll be more apt to ask questions if they’re not consumed by fear of upsetting someone.

Iglitzin readily admits it’s an imperfect solution. She worries that she’s helped create a homogenous group on campus attempting to educate others in the homogeny about issues she’s never experienced. She’s also worried that she’ll get something wrong, that she’ll incorrectly interpret something that has been told to her by a student of color, that she’ll inadvertently perpetuate stereotypes. But she and others in the group also understand that if this is what it takes to get conversations started and if this effort helps people who are exhausted, who can no longer bear the burden of explanation alone, then it has to be done.

“But success,” says Iglitzin, “is when those people who do talk to us then venture outside of our circle to engage people who don’t look like us.”

Roberto Lint Sagarena shares a similar sentiment when talking about Middlebury’s new multicultural center. On a blustery April day I sat in Sagarena’s office in Carr Hall, home to both the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Anderson Freeman Resource Center (AFC). The latter, which Sagarena also directs, was proposed by students who felt that the College was lacking a venue that specifically supported students from historically underrepresented or marginalized communities; it opened this year, an occurrence Sagarena wryly calls “fortuitous.”

Sagarena says, and students concur, that the AFC has helped demystify the collegiate process by bringing in writing tutors, counselors from the health center, and counselors from the Center for Careers and Internships to meet with students in Carr Hall; not as a substitute for, say, visiting a writing tutor in the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research, but as a way of letting students know these resources exist.

And the AFC is a space where alienated students can be themselves. “And that’s great,” says Sagarena. “But it needs to build up to something. I want the Center to serve as a home base for previously alienated students who can then take ownership of the rest of the campus. There needs to be a circulation to the Center; we need to be able to help students expand beyond the AFC, and we need to be able to bring in students who would have never thought about what it means to come from a historically underrepresented community.”

Not long after I talked to Sagarena, the College announced that a popular student-run program called JusTalks would become mandatory for incoming first-year students, beginning next year. I spent a good deal of time talking with Molly McShane, a senior, about JusTalks, which was founded four years ago to provide students with the tools and opportunities to hold conversations about difficult topics.

McShane, who is white, attended the National Cathedral School, an all-girls school in Washington, D.C. She discovered JusTalks as a sophomore at Middlebury, a time when she was struggling to connect with other students who found value and community in conversations about identity and power. JusTalks was her answer—she was able to give voice to her experiences (and learned from listening to others’); she also found a community who shared her interest in talking about difficult subjects. She says that the small group settings build up trust and help foster deeper, more challenging—and also more affirming— conversations over time.      

Next year, every first-year student will participate in a JusTalks daylong event during either winter term or spring semester. “Setting the framework in a student’s first year builds a foundation,” says McShane. “It’s a way of saying to every new student, ‘These are the conversations we have and this is the way we treat each other.’”

Adds Smith Abbott: “It can be a space where people don’t have to fear saying the wrong thing as they ask questions and sort through their feelings.”

On this point, I press her about how Middlebury’s faculty can be brought into these discussions. She agrees with the sentiment that for many students of color, the “single most urgent place where they need to see change is in the classroom.” Diversifying the faculty is a work-in-progress, but it’s also the change that will happen the most slowly. So the challenge becomes this: How do you have an impact now?

“As an institution, we need to provide our faculty with opportunities to have the conversation—Why is this important? What kind of discomfort is acceptable and what is not?” she says. “We need to make the resources available for people to have those conversations and, ultimately, to learn, to deepen their skills as classroom facilitators.

“Because they weren’t trained for this,” she adds “and being vulnerable, allowing oneself to be wrong in a space where they are supposed to be the educator is really, really hard.” (More faculty training in this area is another of Patton’s initiatives.)

A year ago, Miguel Fernandez met with department chairs to talk about diversifying the faculty, and he says he was largely met with push back, specifically with how he was defining diversity. The professors asked about expanding the definition to include diversity of religion, diversity of thought. All important, Fernandez told them. But he specifically wanted to talk about the urgent need to increase racial diversity.

“It was different this year,” he says. “I think a large percentage of faculty have found themselves in uncomfortable situations, and they’re looking for the tools to help them navigate this new terrain.”

I have had faculty describe this feeling as being “unmoored,” that at any moment, in teaching their material, they could be treading into quicksand. And many of these faculty members express confusion and dismay about the situation—they say they were once activists themselves and are empathetic to the students’ feelings, yet they find themselves being described as part of the problem.    

Smith Abbott is not surprised to hear this. “People care, they’re curious, they’re worried.” She notes the increase in attendance at voluntary workshops and discussion groups, but she also points out that “students rightly say, ‘It’s not everyone yet.’ And we’re trying to figure that out.”

***

On a sunny Friday afternoon, I met Charles Rainey for lunch at a Thai restaurant in town. It was a few days before elections for the 2016–17 Student Government Association (SGA), and Rainey was one of four students running for president—the only rising sophomore. As a first-year senator, Rainey has been a presence on the SGA (see p. 43), and he was running on a platform—“a movement,” he calls it—that could upend the very role of student government at Middlebury.

The oldest of five children, Rainey grew up in suburban Atlanta. He attended predominately Black schools and says there was a lot of empowerment in his community, but also a lot of prejudice that existed just beyond his neighborhood. He says that being Black is not monolithic—“there’s not one Black experience”—but his life experience has helped him understand what it’s like to be marginalized.

At lunch, he’s in campaign mode, even though I have no vote and this story will be published after the election. “But this is a movement,” he reminds me with a smile. “Not just an election.”

He says the SGA can’t afford “for another year to go by where conversations are not centered on issues concerning inclusivity.” The SGA must represent all students, not just some, and he believes that not everyone is being represented. But he’s encountered resistance, both as a senator and in his campaign, primarily by people who feel that it’s not the role of student government to debate these issues. And this deeply troubles him. (He describes the focus on issues such as dining hall hours as “inconsequential.”)

To our lunch he wore a T-shirt that bears a Desmond Tutu quote: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice then you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” To Rainey, “the SGA has been largely neutral on matters of inclusion and social justice; people have taken a stance that the SGA shouldn’t get involved in these issues. You know what I think about that.”

He has an extensive list of policy proposals—better integrating JusTalks into the first-year experience; the creation of a peer-mentoring program called MiddSibs, in which juniors and seniors are paired up with sophomores and freshmen to form a support network based on shared interests, identities, or backgrounds; mandatory inclusivity training for residential life staff and faculty. While some of the ideas hold more practical promise than others, the point is that Rainey wants to keep the campus’s focus on these issues, wants to keep the pressure on decision makers, and he thinks it should be SGA’s responsibility to do so. 

Katy Smith Abbott says that Rainey’s campaign is pushing the student body to question what their government should be. “Are students eager for somebody who really wants to use that office and that student body to push for change in an activist spirit, or do they want it to continue as it has—as a more traditional, if you will, governing body?”

Rainey lost the election, coming in third place. Karina Toy—an Asian American who touted support for a student leadership retreat, more parking spaces for students, and greater SGA transparency—won. During her campaign she agreed with Rainey that inclusivity was an important issue. She said she was supportive of efforts to build a more inclusive community, but she expressed skepticism at how influential the SGA could be.

***

At the photo shoot for this story, Debanjan Roychoudhury gazed out the large floor-to-ceiling windows in the Axinn Center and watched Rainey jog across the quad, a late arrival to the shoot. To nobody in particular, he said, “Man, he’s gonna burn out.” Roychoudhury would know better than anyone; a few years ago, he was in the same place.

“My sophomore year, I raged against everything,” the senior from Queens tells me one morning while we sat at a table in Crossroads Café. He arrived at Middlebury as an enthusiastic first-year, excited about being in a new place among new people and eager to be involved in as many activities as he could handle. He threw himself into his classwork, joined a number of cultural organizations, and volunteered in the community. He was optimistic, he says, convinced that Middlebury was a place where he could grow and become part of a community that was already becoming special to him. Those feelings didn’t last.

He describes a wave of events that buffeted his optimism. There was the hateful, misogynistic, homophobic letter mailed to a student on campus; there was the time he was at a Halloween party and asked if he was dressed as a basketball player (the six foot four Roychoudhury wasn’t wearing a costume, “though I felt like I had one put on me right then”); there was the time a white student assumed he must love the rapper Jay-Z, presumably because Roychoudhury has dark skin and was wearing a knit Yankees cap, attire favored by the artist; there was the time he attended a campus discussion centered on the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold a Michigan law banning the use of racial criteria in college admissions, and he heard a faculty member say that now Black students at Michigan would know they deserved to be there.

“So it became my job to prove to people that I was smart enough to be here, that I was earning my scholarship, that I had earned my place,” he says. “And I fought like hell to prove that.” What felled him, he says, was intransigence. He felt as though he and others were pushing and pushing to talk about these issues and no one was listening; the AFC was two years away from opening, and Roychoudhury felt like he was drifting away. Burnout followed, the burnout he worries about for Charles Rainey. He focused on getting by—getting by and getting out.

Now, though, he feels differently. “I woke up one day and realized that none of this has defeated me. As a student of color, I belong here just as much as anyone else; this is my school just as much as it’s anyone else’s.”

I asked him what prompted this realization, and he thought for a minute. “Maybe it’s as simple as honoring people like Martin Henry Freeman and Marianne Anderson,” he says, gesturing to his backpack which features button pins with the likenesses of the two Middlebury alums, students of color who graduated in the late 1800s and went on to exemplary careers in education.

“Nothing gives me more pride than thinking about what they accomplished. And they are Middlebury,” he says. “Now think about what life was like for them, think about their norm. My grandparents lived under colonial rule. Compare their norm to mine; compare Freeman’s and Anderson’s norm to mine. It’s different, right? It’s better, right? Change is happening if we keep working, if we come together. Sometimes it’s hard to see, but it is.”

Roychoudhury stands up from the table and says he needs to get to class, but he has one last thing he wants to tell me.

“Did you know that when Martin Henry Freeman walked at graduation, the other students held back? They wouldn’t walk with him. And then one guy stepped forward and linked arms with him, and they walked side-by-side in the procession. When we look back on this moment—and I believe it’s a big chapter in our story, and we will be looking back on it—who is going to stand and link arms and walk with their brothers and sisters?”  

Stand and Deliver

Rana

Rana Abdelhamid ’15 has learned to stare down bigotry and xenophobia. And now she’s teaching a generation of American women to do the same.

In an elementary school classroom on the third floor of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, Rana Abdelhamid ’15 is teaching a group of women how to yell. It’s not an easy task. Abdelhamid demonstrates the self-defense move again. She settles into a fighting stance, her right foot back, her left leg bent slightly. She raises her fists in front of her face, which is framed with a royal blue headscarf. Twisting at the waist, she launches a powerful punch with a loud, sharp “KI-YAH!”

“On my count,” she says, urging the nine women in front of her to try. The women are part of a daylong workshop hosted by WISE—the Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment—an organization Abdelhamid founded six years ago, when she was just 17 years old. WISE teaches self-defense, leadership, and social entrepreneurship skills to Muslim women, a task that has grown even more urgent for Abdelhamid, now 23, in the face of a spike in hate crimes against Muslims and increasingly strident anti-Muslim rhetoric.

“One,” Abdelhamid shouts, and the room dissolves into embarrassed giggles. Only one student yells without any self-consciousness: six-year-old Kenza, in her heart-print dress and pink-and-white-striped headscarf, who is attending the workshop with her mother.

“This is important,” Abdelhamid says, gathering the women around her. They range in age from teens to 40-somethings. Some wear hijabs, the traditional Muslim headscarf; others don’t. “As women, we’re told not to be loud,” she says. “We are programmed to be respectful, to be nice, to smile. We giggle, even when we are threatened. I needed to use these self-defense skills once,” she tells the class. “But I didn’t have the confidence to use them.”

***

“I felt a tug at my hijab,” Abdelhamid begins. She has told this story many times in the last seven years; it has lost none of its power in the retelling. Abdelhamid’s animated features still as she recalls walking alone down a New York City street. A man approached her from behind and tried to rip off her hijab. “I remember the hate in his eyes. I felt very vulnerable and very alone,” she says.

The physical fear came first. Her attacker was enormous in the eyes of the petite 16-year-old. She ran. When she was safe, she locked herself in a bathroom and cried. Then came another, bigger fear, an uncertainty about her place in American society: “Why do people see Muslims in this light? Does everyone see me this way? Why does this happen?”

Abdelhamid knew such discrimination and hatred existed. She had been an eight-year-old Muslim-American New Yorker on 9/11 and had seen the attacks and suspicion the Muslim community endured in its wake. At 16, she had just begun wearing the hijab, a personal expression of her culture and religion that also made her a visible target for those who misunderstood her faith. She did not know how to counteract that hate, but she did know how to defend herself.

From the age of seven, Abdelhamid had studied Shotokan karate. Her parents had enrolled their shy daughter in the class to give her the confidence she needed to stand up for herself in the sometimes-chaotic environment of her New York City public school. In the aftermath of her attack, Abdelhamid embraced karate as a tool of self-empowerment and of self-defense; today she holds a black belt.

Karate made Abdelhamid feel less vulnerable, but she still felt alone. She wondered: were other Muslim girls facing the same issues? As a teenager, Abdelhamid was preternaturally attuned to the importance of community. Her mother is a human rights activist and from a young age, Abdelhamid had seen the impact of domestic violence in her community in New York, where she was born, and in Alexandria, Egypt, where her parents grew up. When she was attacked, Abdelhamid had been walking to her volunteer job at a domestic violence shelter.

Those two pieces—self-defense and community building—formed the foundation blocks of WISE, an organization that began with a very personal goal: to help one teenage girl heal.

The idea of a 16-year-old girl teaching self-defense to her peers was not well received at first. Abdelhamid remembers pitching the project to an imam at a Queens community center: “He laughed.” He explained that the center already had classes for Muslim women; they were all religious education classes. “I learned later that after I left he actually ripped up my poster,” she says. The rejection only emboldened her—that “activist spark,” she says now. She was determined to strengthen her argument. She began researching other organizations, gathering data, and seeking out mentors and allies.

Her perseverance paid off. The first WISE course was held the summer of 2010 in Brooklyn. Abdelhamid was nervous as her father drove her to the class; she had never done anything like this before. More than a dozen teenaged girls attended, and Abdelhamid says, “it was that sisterhood that I have always wanted to find.”

That first eight-week workshop combined self-defense training with conversation; the girls had a safe space to share their experiences of being Muslim women in New York. For Abdelhamid, the self-defense portion of the class is key. It attracts a wide variety of women—those who wear the hijab and those who do not; those who have identified as Muslims throughout their lives and those new to the faith; those who consider themselves feminist and those who do not—which makes the conversations among the women richer. “We have debates in the class and opportunity for learning,” Abdelhamid says. “It has definitely challenged my assumptions and my beliefs.”

At the end of the workshop, Abdelhamid thought that she was done—“I felt better,” she recalls thinking. Then she got a phone call from one of the girls in the class. The girl was in tears. She had been on a New York City bus. “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?” the bus driver had demanded as she fumbled with her Metro Card. “Because of the class, I knew how to respond,” the girl told Abdelhamid. She recorded the bus number and knew there were people she could ask for help. “How do we keep this going?” she asked.

“That was the moment for me,” says Abdelhamid. “This is not about me. It’s not about me at all.’”

***

Rana2

Google ‘images of Muslim women,’” Abdelhamid says. “I can actually do it for you right now.” She reaches for her smartphone and quickly scans through a dozen or so text messages before entering the search term. Of the first 20 pictures that appear, only three show women in hair-covering hijabs. The other 17 photos are of women in black niqabs, a face-covering veil, or black burqas, a full-body veil.

On this day in late March, Abdelhamid sits in a coffee shop in Cambridge. She is dressed stylishly in a long, bell-shaped black skirt, brown boots, and a patterned shawl, which she gathers in her lap. Her personal style is on display in every detail, from her chunky rings and her penciled eyebrows to her hijab. Today it’s a burgundy scarf—a complement to her lipstick—tied closely to her head in a style she likes to call “the urban turban.” “This is not what I look like,” she says, gesturing to the dominant image of Muslim women displayed on her phone. “We are trying to diversify and elevate the narrative.”

WISE began as a self-empowerment effort—first for Abdelhamid and then for the 500 women who have participated in WISE’s programs to date. The organization now has volunteer-staffed chapters in six cities in the U.S. and Europe; some workshops last a couple of hours, while some last months. The media has embraced WISE—at the recent Boston workshop, two camera crews filmed the self-defense class—and slowly, so have Muslim organizations that formerly laughed at the concept. Once a premed student turned international politics and economics major, Abdelhamid is now pursuing a master’s in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and hopes to turn WISE into a full-time job upon graduation.

As WISE’s profile has grown, it has also become a platform for educating the public about Muslim women. It’s a path Abdelhamid treads cautiously; she does not want to be seen as a spokeswoman for some 800 million Muslim women. But neither can she stay silent.

When Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States; when his Republican rival Ted Cruz suggested patrolling Muslim neighborhoods; when ISIS was connected to attacks in Paris, Brussels, and San Bernardino, Abdelhamid’s phone rang. “I get messages all the time, after every attack, from Muslim girls who want to know: I am wearing the hijab. Should I take it off?”

Abdelhamid tells the callers that taking the hijab off is as personal a decision as putting it on, that each woman must make a decision with regard to her safety and stress levels. Abdelhamid has made her choice: “I am defiant. I am going to wear it and I am going to be proud.”

***

As she works to expand WISE, Abdelhamid has introduced a new project: Hijabis of New York. Inspired by the popular Humans of New York blog, Hijabis of New York documents the experiences of women who wear the hijab—in New York and in cities around the world—with a portrait and a one-question interview.

For Abdelhamid, the Hijabis of New York is a digital version of what she calls the “hijabi nod,” that brief moment of recognition and connection between two women wearing hijabs as they pass each other on the street. The project showcases the diversity of women who choose to wear the hijab, even as it builds a virtual community among them.

The questions Abdelhamid and the project’s other photographers pose to these women on the street are thought provoking. She blanches at answering one herself: “What are you struggling with at the moment?”

On the blog, struggle is a common theme. “With staying true to myself and being who I want to be,” says one woman in a hijab painted with watercolor pastels. “Lately, I’ve been struggling with my faith,” admits another in a royal purple hijab.

Abdelhamid pauses, starts, stops. She’s struggling with the same things her classmates are: balancing her class work with her social life; finding her own identity in her 20s; realizing her big ambitions.

She starts again: “I’m really struggling with the hateful rhetoric. It’s hard. I really, really feel American. I feel very proud to be American, and then when I read these things…it makes you feel very vulnerable. It makes you feel like a second-class citizen. These are things that I’m grappling with and that’s hard because I’m leading an organization that is teaching people not to feel that way.”

The Gospel According to Ted

UnTapped_Middlebury

How Ted King ’05 and his entrepreneurial cohort of outdoor enthusiasts seek to upend the market for athletic fuel.

Strapping on her skis and moving slowly—by her standards—through a warm-up at Lake Placid’s Nordic Center, Heather Mooney ’15 does one lap around the stadium, then another, and finally heads out with her teammates for an abbreviated jaunt through the woods. It’s two days before the 2015 NCAA Ski Championships, and Mooney is exhausted. She’s battling a cold, which is sapping her energy at just the wrong time, and she doesn’t have the luxury of taking it easy. She’s running low in another department, as well.

“I have one more,” she says, opening a pouch on her blue waist belt and pulling out a packet of maple syrup. “We have one last late-day race, so the timing worked out perfectly.” Marketed as an “all-natural athletic fuel” under the label UnTapped, this particular packet of pure maple syrup is no homespun remedy but a relatively new product being touted as a natural alternative to synthetic sports gels. The founder of the company and self-professed maple syrup proselytizer—“I’ve been preaching the gospel of maple syrup for years”—is Ted King ’05, a cyclist who competed professionally for nearly a decade.

A native New Englander (a rarity in professional cycling), King earned a quirky reputation on the cycling circuit for being the “syrup guy,” never failing to pack a couple of gallons of the sweet stuff and always having some on hand at mealtime. “It’s not commonplace in Europe,” he says, and what is available tends to be the corn-syrup-based alternatives, which King dismisses as fake syrup. But it wasn’t until a training ride in 2012 that King realized maple syrup’s potential as an energy supplement.

The previous summer, King and fellow pro cyclist Tim Johnson had successfully cycled the length of Vermont’s Route 100—dubbed “200 on 100” for the 200-mile trek—and had set their sights on another 200-mile ride: from Burlington, Vermont, to Portland, Maine. In advance of the new challenge, playfully called “200 not on 100,” King and Johnson got the word out about the ride and as they pedaled across northern New England, they were greeted by cheering crowds along the way. As they neared the halfway point, while zipping along the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire, they encountered a man waiting on the side of the road—with gift baskets for each rider.

Among various sundries, such as a 16-oz. can of beer, was a mini-container of maple syrup. In an attempt to replace at least some of the 1,000 calories per hour they were burning—and stay sober—they downed the syrup.

“That was probably the first time I really, truly chugged maple syrup on a ride,” says King. The performance benefits seemed clear, he adds, citing a noticeable energy boost. Why not try and replicate it? King began stopping at mom-and-pop syrup stands along his bike routes, buying novelty-size nips and tucking them in his jersey.

“It wasn’t the safest thing in the world,” he says of the glass vials that would surely shatter during a fall. So, aiming to avoid maiming, he started looking for alternative packaging. At farmers’ markets he would show syrup makers his traditional energy gels and ask if they could get their product into a similarly manageable form. He was met with stares of confusion and sent on his merry way. For more than a year, no one seemed to take him seriously. Then King pitched the idea to Andrew Gardner, a friend and amateur cyclist.

At the time, Gardner was the Nordic ski coach at Middlebury, and he had his own syrup stories. Vermont ski racing has more than its fair share of traditions, one of which involves handing out jugs of syrup as podium prizes. “I saw the winners from Saturday’s race chugging maple syrup and then skiing long distances on Sunday,” Gardner says, an observation seconded by Heather Mooney. “Chugging syrup is definitely a thing,” she confirms, especially on the men’s side. It’s a practice that Gardner had noticed but had never really thought about—until King approached him with his crazy idea.

***

Andrew Gardner was not only enthusiastic about King’s idea; he proved adept at solving several of the logistical problems King had encountered, such as sourcing the syrup itself. He introduced King to Roger Brown, Doug Brown, Tim Kelley, and Jimmy Cochran—first cousins who are descended from Vermont skiing royalty. The Skiing Cochrans, as the family is known, have competed internationally for two generations. The four offspring of patriarch Mickey all skied in Winter Olympics (daughter Barbara Ann won gold in 1972), while the next generation has placed six family members on the U.S. ski team. Mickey and his wife, Ginny, also built a small ski area on their property in Richmond, Vermont. Now operated as a nonprofit, this literal mom-and-pop ski hill, with its three lifts and eight slopes, is a bucolic hive of family activity each winter. It is also surrounded by 20,000 maple trees, and in 2010, four of Mickey and Ginny’s 10 grandchildren started tapping the trees and opened a sugarhouse that would produce their signature Slopeside Syrup.

The Cochran cousins loved the idea of syrup-as-energy-fuel, and with King and Gardner, the cohort began scouring the country to find a partner who could package Slopeside’s product in small, on-the-go packets. (The supplier remains a closely guarded secret, says King.)

Next, they turned to crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, where they crafted a campaign that was less a charity plea and more a pre-order system. (“We really wanted this to be a proof of concept,” explains Gardner.) The initial ask was $35,000, and in the days before the launch, King was approving drafts of the site while lying face down on a massage table between stages of the Tour de France.

The campaign blew past its goal, raising more than $50,000, which would fund production of 100,000 packets—though the fledgling company soon learned that there was greater demand for UnTapped than they had anticipated, particularly as customers kept finding new uses for the product. “We’ve heard of expectant mothers using it in labor,” says King. Paramedics have also used UnTapped to treat diabetes, and people report taking it along to diners so they don’t have to use “artificial” brands on their pancakes and waffles.

Naturally, the UnTapped team swears by its product. “It offers the same nutritional benefits found in the very calculated, heavily supplemented stuff, but maple syrup is entirely natural,” King says, citing a laundry list of resulting benefits: antioxidants, low glycemic index (54), and high magnesium content, to name a few. For others though, the jury is still out. Burlington-based nutritionist Kimberly Evans, for instance, loves the idea of UnTapped and even bought it as a stocking stuffer for her partner last Christmas, but she isn’t fully convinced by the science. “I would really have to see some evidence-based research for me to be comfortable recommending maple syrup,” she says. Nonetheless, UnTapped has been flying off the shelves.

According to Gardner, UnTapped is doing well financially, though not to the degree that he, King, or the Cochrans can forgo any other source of income. And there’s still the risk of falling victim to the fad-prone natural foods industry. “We don’t want to become a stop on the trendy-sport highway,” he cautions, conceding that there is a bit of a novelty aura to the product. At least for now, though, the UnTapped upswing continues. You can find it for sale in L.L.Bean stores, and Olympic distance runner Ruben Sanca is the latest endurance athlete to endorse the product. “We’re an actual, legitimate business,” says Gardner. “It’s still one of these things where I turn around and say, this is crazy.”

On a Sea of Stone

Munroe

The top of Murdoch Mountain, in the Uinta chain in northeastern Utah, is about 11,200 feet, which is modest by the standards of the Uintas: the state’s highest point is Kings Peak at 13,258 feet. Murdoch is popular for hikers because of its accessibility: you can drive, via Mirror Lake Highway, to Bald Mountain Pass, which at 10,700 feet is only about 500 vertical from Murdoch’s top.

That’s where, in July, I met up with Jeff Munroe, a professor of geology at Middlebury, and two students: Sam O’Keefe ’16, from Baltimore, Maryland, and Luna Wasson ’17, from Wilson, Wyoming. Munroe has been hiking, climbing, and conducting research in the Uintas for two decades. And for much of that time he’s been bringing students to learn about this east-west stretch of the Rocky Mountains.

In recent years, Munroe’s research has focused on dust deposition in the Uintas. The long-term goal: to learn how windborne dust affects the geo-ecology of alpine systems. He’s investigating soil formation (also known as pedogenesis); the albedo—or reflectivity—of the snowpack, and the impact on snowmelt; the composition and source of the dust on the mountains. And, with the help of core samples from Uinta lakes, Munroe is studying how dust deposition has changed over time due both to climate change—a drier climate in the Southwest implies more dust in the mountains—and human activity in the lowland basins, including fossil fuel extraction and mining.

On this July day, Munroe and the students are heading to a passive dust collector not far from Murdoch’s summit, one of four that the Middlebury geologist deployed in the Uintas a few years back. From Bald Mountain Pass, we hike through a beautiful alpine meadow, which quickly becomes a tricky, steep talus with rocks ranging from toaster to refrigerator size. They look stable but often shift under your feet. Trekking poles come in handy.

As the terrain flattens near the top of Murdoch, we find ourselves on a felsenmeer—German for sea of stone. This is a relatively flat expanse of rock broken into loose pieces, and it’s typical of the summits throughout the Uintas. The last time glaciers moved through, the peaks were not covered in ice and so for thousands of years they’ve been subject to freezing and thawing, which reduces the top few feet of the rock surface to rubble.

The dust collector is a short walk from a summit cairn, on the shoulder of the mountain, where it’s less likely to be disturbed. Just below the site is a small snowfield. The collectors—built by Tony Desautels, a scientific machinist in Middlebury’s Science Tech Support Services—are about two feet square and made of clear plastic. The plastic has five V-shaped channels with holes near the top that allow excess water to drain out. The channels are closed on both ends and have on one side removable black plastic caps. When deployed in the field, each channel is filled to two-thirds its depth with black, rounded glass—pieces about the size of Peanut M&M’s. Dust collects in the channels and is trapped beneath the glass pieces, where some of it stays until the team comes to collect it each year.

The collection process is almost alarmingly low-tech. First Munroe, O’Keefe, and Wasson remove the glass pieces from each channel and put them in plastic bags. Then they put the water and dust from each channel in a plastic bottle—several bottles for each collector—with a plastic spoon and a turkey baster. Then, one by one, they remove the caps on the channels and rinse each channel with purified water to capture more dust and add it to that channel’s bottle. They use a toothbrush in the final rinse to make sure all the dust gets into the bottle. Then they seal the bottles and secure them in their backpacks for the hike down. They put the collector as close as possible to where it had been, and put the glass pieces back into the channels. At the end of the trip, they will ship these bottles back to Middlebury, where the dust will be removed and analyzed.

With the collection process complete, we head back down to Bald Mountain Pass and then drive deeper into the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest on Mirror Lake Highway before turning off onto increasingly bumpy and rocky U.S. Forest Service “roads” to our campsite/staging area for the next hike. Munroe and the students are in a huge white four-door turbo-diesel pickup Munroe rented for the trip. He calls it the hovercraft for the way it handles the bad roads. My Jeep Patriot rental can’t make it past the washouts on the last quarter mile to the campsite. So I pack my tent and other gear in a huge backpack I borrowed from the Middlebury Mountain Club gear room and make the short trek to the riverbank.

We set up camp by the fast-rushing East Fork of the Blacks Fork River, a Green River tributary. We have a tailgate dinner, with Munroe and the students enjoying the peanut butter/noodle/vegetable creation he cooked over a gas camp stove. Munroe and his wife, Diane, the coordinator for community-based environmental studies at the College’s Franklin Environmental Center, are vegans, and many students talk about the wonderful meals they’ve had at the Munroe household.

When it’s still light, we settle into our tents for the night, because we plan to rise at 4 a.m. to set out on the long hike to a dust collector just south of Bald Mountain. (Another Bald Mountain, it turns out: not the one visible from the aforementioned Bald Mountain Pass.) The early start is to ensure we’re back below tree line before the late afternoon thunderstorms.

*

In 2001 Jeff Munroe joined the Middlebury faculty as an assistant professor of geology. He graduated from Bowdoin College and earned his MS and PhD from the University of WisconsinMadison. His work in the Uintas began as a collaboration with the Forest Service in 1996, when he was a graduate student, and was the basis for his doctoral dissertation. He’s also done research on climate change in northeastern Nevada, glacier retreat in Glacier National Park, and the evolution of lake environments and mountain soils in northern New England. Now a full professor, he teaches courses on geomorphology, environmental geology, paleolimnology, and arctic and alpine environments.

Munroe’s general area of research is the Quaternary period, which ranges from the present to about 2.6 million years ago—a tiny sliver of time given that our planet is 4.5 billion years old. “Geology is reading a book with most of the pages torn out,” he says. “The evidence, the story, the information is constantly being deleted by erosion and other processes, so the further back you go, more and more is missing. Working on the Quaternary—relatively recent stuff—the stories you can tell, the data that you can accumulate: it’s just richer, because less of the record has been lost. Not that it’s easier, because plenty of the record has still been lost, but you can ask tougher questions, because you’re dealing with a more complete record.”

Like his colleagues in Middlebury’s geology department, Munroe spends a lot of time in the field and much of that time with students. “That’s something I did as an undergrad at Bowdoin,” he says. “I went to Alaska for five or six weeks with my advisor, and that put the hook in me pretty good about doing field-based geology. And I just always had it in my mind that in a perfect world I’d get into a situation where I could provide those types of opportunities for undergraduates. And beginning my very first year here, I’ve been able to do that. It helps build great relationships with students, as you might imagine. The conversations you have when you’re together all the time, when you’re dealing with the uncertainties and unpredictability of fieldwork: you really become a team pretty quickly. And I love to be able to provide that for students. I think that type of immersive learning in the field has no parallel. You can’t fake it. You can try with a three- or four-hour lab during a regular semester. But, boy, when you’re out there testing hypotheses every day, coming up with new ones every night, you see science in real time.”

*

At 4:30 the next morning, we’re fording the Blacks Fork, which runs cold and fast over round, slippery rocks, and is just over knee deep. Munroe had described this hike to me as 15 miles, but it turns out to be 17, including 3,000 feet of elevation gain that tops out at 12,500 feet. Wearing headlamps to illuminate our path, we start up a series of switchbacks that cross a steep rocky slope through thick woods still soaked from overnight rains. On the second switchback, we hear a rumble of thunder, which Munroe says is not a good sign. Thunder in the morning often means a long, stormy day in the mountains. But we decide to press on until we get to the tree line and can see more of the sky.

By the time we reach the top of the switchbacks, the woods are waking up, filling with birdsong. The trail levels and smooths out for half a mile or so through a beautiful softwood glade. Then things get steep again as we hike through a huge pile of rocks, which has a stream running below it. The trail zigzags through the rocks—we found our way by looking for cairns at the turns—and then the terrain opens up again, displaying fewer trees and some marshy sections.

But before long we’re back in a steep and rocky section, now above the tree line, and stop for breakfast on the shoulder of Bald Mountain at around 11,000 feet. It’s overcast, with a chilly breeze. Having discovered early on that my idea of a comfortable pace doesn’t match those of the others—Munroe is tall, trim, and extremely fit; O’Keefe is a national collegiate champion in cyclocross; Wasson is a member of the Panther Nordic ski team—I arrive a bit late. From our breakfast perch, the terrain looks friendlier. I ask Munroe if we’re halfway, and he says that’s probably about right. He adds that you can see our destination, pointing south toward a peak in the middle distance. Since you can see for at least 20 miles in almost every direction, this is not terribly comforting. But breakfast—Alpineaire’s granola and blueberries; just add cold water—could not have tasted better.

*

Last spring, Munroe taught one of the geology department’s most popular entry-level courses: Environmental Geology. He makes sure even those beginning students get their time in the field.

One afternoon, I tagged along as Munroe and his class piled into vans and made the short drive over to the Middlebury River where it enters East Middlebury. We parked just past the new Route 125 bridge that spans the East Middlebury Gorge, and Munroe and the students pulled on waders and descended the steep slope to the river.

They were measuring the water’s volume and the speed of its flow. Before leaving campus, Munroe had instructed one student to grab four oranges from the dining halls—“The entire success of the lab depends on those oranges,” he said—for reasons that weren’t, at first, clear to me.   

Once in the water, the students created a cross-section of the river, running a long tape measure across and using yardsticks to measure depth every foot along the tape. Then they stretched two tapes across the stream 20 feet apart and floated oranges between them, measuring the time it took the fruit to travel the distance at different points.

Having collected the data on water volume and flow, Munroe and the class climbed back up to the bridge, crossed to the river’s north side, and walked half a mile upstream. Munroe discussed how the gorge was formed, noting the volume and speed of water required to carve the gorge out of the quartzite bedrock.

He pointed out round dimples on the surfaces of some large rocks in the river: these were percussion marks and smaller rocks hitting the larger ones caused them. Typically they’re found on the upstream side. If they’re on the downstream side it means the river flow has moved or flipped over the rock. He asked his students to find the largest rock that appeared to have been flipped, and they discovered an enormous one—big enough for several students to stand on. Estimating the weight and the flow required to flip it, Munroe said, suggested it would have taken a once-in-10,000-years flood.

Munroe is clearly in his element in the field, whether in the rivers and streams of Vermont or the extremes of the West, and his smile was almost ever-present through the afternoon. On the way back to the vans, he talked about how great it is to have places like the gorge so close to campus. “It’s a wonderful place to teach geology,” he said. “You can just go outside.”

*

Munroe2

Back in Utah, the next bit of the hike goes slightly downhill through a beautiful, wide alpine tundra covered with grass and wildflowers. But before long we’re on a gradual climb interrupted every so often by steep slopes with lots of exposed rock. I keep thinking every pitch has to be the last one. And eventually, when I nearly crawl over what actually is the final rise, there’s Munroe sitting next to his dust collector, taking my picture.

At this climb’s halfway point, I had told Munroe I’d seen lots of good spots along the way for his dust collector—the implication being that such a long hike might not be necessary. But he tells me there’s “a method to [his] madness.” In the summer, sheep are brought up to these alpine meadows to graze. He’d learned how high the sheep usually get and placed his collector well above that point.

So eight-plus miles later, Munroe, O’Keefe, and Wasson repeat yesterday’s process. As they work, Munroe gives impromptu lectures on some of the terrain features we’d encountered. Frost boils are bare patches of ground: here they’re mostly brick-colored dirt produced when frost pushes soil up from below. They’re bare because the soil’s movement doesn’t allow vegetation to take hold. Sorted polygons and stripes—known as patterned ground—are areas of soil and vegetation bordered by larger stones. During repeated freezing and thawing, finer soils flow and settle underneath larger stones, pushing the stones aside and creating geometric figures on flatter terrain and stripes on steeper sections.

Once dust collection is complete, I take a picture of the three researchers with the spectacular Red Castle in the background. The red-tinged rocks and spires, which look like an enormous cathedral, have become the traditional backdrop for a celebratory photo after reaching, at 12,500 feet, this highest collector. Then we start back down. Seeing black clouds to the west over other jagged Uinta peaks, we depart with some urgency. No one wants to be caught out in this open country, far above the tree line, in a thunderstorm.

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In the spring of 2013, Munroe was promoted to full professor. He also became the first winner of Middlebury’s Gladstone Award for Excellence in Teaching, which includes a stipend to support collaborative work with students.

Munroe used the funding to take three students to Utah at various times over the summer. Emily Attwood ’14, Paul Quackenbush ’14, and Sam O’Keefe ’16 gathered dust from the collectors, collected dust from snowfields, took core samples from lake sediments, and collected soil samples. The students then based their school-year work on these experiences: Attwood wrote a geology thesis; both Quackenbush, a geography major, and O’Keefe worked on 500-level independent projects. After doing lab analysis on the materials they’d brought back from the mountains, the students helped Munroe with a paper concerning this project. They also submitted abstracts of their work to a conference in Castellaneta Marina, Italy.  The conference’s name is DUST 2014: An International Conference on Atmospheric Dust.  Attwood’s abstract concerned dust in snow; O’Keefe’s was on dust in lake cores; and Quackenbush’s was dust and soil development.  All were accepted, so in June 2014, Munroe and the students attended the conference, with Munroe presenting a paper on Uinta dust deposition coauthored by the three students. Each student also did a poster presentation.

Attwood remarks on the novelty of presenting in front of atmospheric scientists at an international conference—“we were definitely the youngest people there”—but says the collaborative experience was par for the course. “In the geology department, as in some other departments, the professors encourage field experience,” she says. “You get to know your professors on a different level, hiking with them for hours during the day, cooking meals with them, swapping stories. And you learn in such a different way than you would in a classroom. You can just ask them all the questions you want. You’re right there in the field and something pops up, and you say: ‘What does that mean? Why would that be there?’” Attwood, a former Nordic ski racer at Middlebury, now teaches skiing and winter ecology at a Montana ski center.

Quackenbush now works for an environmental consulting firm outside Boston and says that “being involved in the lab work, getting to review the paper with Jeff and make suggestions on that, and seeing how that whole process plays out is an experience that very few [undergraduates] get to have. But I think Jeff strives in his classes and his labs to give students a chance to understand how academic research really works.”

While we were in Utah, Munroe learned he had been awarded a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to help support further work on dust in the Uintas. The grant will support the placement of more dust collectors—bringing the total to eight—from one end of the Uintas to the other. Munroe also anticipates having dust gathered from the collectors twice a year rather than just once.

According to the NSF, Munroe’s work with student collaborators was an important factor in approving his grant. Reviewers addressed his past work with undergraduates, along with Middlebury’s commitment to providing students with research opportunities. “The robust participation of undergraduates is clearly an important element in the success of this project,” read the foundation’s award letter.

The new grant started last summer, and Munroe immediately made plans to return to the Uintas with Middlebury student Ryan McElroy ’16. Munroe asked Tony Desautels if he could build five more collectors—four to put in new collection spots, and one to replace a broken collector discovered last summer. Desautels had the collectors ready when Munroe and McElroy headed out at the end of September.

In a week, they placed the new collectors, replaced the broken one, and revisited three of the remaining collectors, along with taking lots of soil samples. The grant also envisions using lake sediment cores collected during past Uintas visits to do a study on a geologic time scale of dust deposition.

It’s heady stuff, and I mention to Munroe how advanced this all seems. He nods. “I never use a book in any of my classes anymore,” he says, “because by the time a book is published, it’s out of date. For the price the students are going to pay (for a book), I’d much rather they read journal articles. I know it’s a big step up. These were not written for undergraduates usually. But, boy, they can make headway by figuring out something that’s presented in a journal article from this week or from last year.”

“That’s how science is done. It’s not a static series of assembled, time-tested material. It’s very, very dynamic.”

Tim Etchells ’74 spent more that a year dropping in on Jeff Munroe, observing the geologist in his natural environment as a teacher. In addition to chasing him across the beautiful Uinta landscape, Etchells sat in on classes and put on waders to join students in the Middlebury River lab. He also hitched a ride with Munroe and his wife, Diane—who frequently accompanies her husband on trips to the Uintas—when they took 30 Middlebury alumni to the top of Killington Peak in Vermont as part of a sold-out session on “The Mountains of Northern New England” at Alumni College in 2014.

The Research Paradigm

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In the days following last year’s terrorist attacks in Paris—first in January on the Charlie Hebdo offices and then the horrific events of November 13 that left 130 people dead—many national media outlets turned to Middlebury political scientist Erik Bleich, asking him to contextualize these attacks committed by Islamic fanatics.

Bleich, whose scholarship focuses on race and ethnicity in the politics of Western Europe, had just spent a year abroad in Lyon, France, furthering his research so he was expertly positioned to comment. Also attracting media interest were two recent scholarly articles Bleich had published on how newspapers portray Muslims and Islam.

In one, published in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Bleich and his coauthors examined how British newspaper headlines from 2001 to 2012 represented Muslims. The other, which appeared in Ethnic and Racial Studies, assessed the tone of New York Times headlines from 1985 to 2013 concerning Muslims and Islam.

In fact, Bleich’s research upended conventional wisdom, finding that headlines about Muslims have not been predominantly negative, and that in the New York Times, headlines about Islam and Muslims actually became more positive over the period studied, even after the 9/11 attacks.

Bleich, who has made Islamophobia here and abroad one of his focuses, finds his research exciting. But he gets just as excited talking about his research methodology. On the first article, Bleich’s coauthors were Middlebury students Hannah Stonebraker ’13, Hasher Nisar ’16, and Rana Abdelhamid ’15. The second was coauthored by Nisar and Abdelhamid.

“Starting from scratch and with student input,” Bleich says, “we developed a way to download, process, code, and analyze newspaper headlines for their tone toward Muslims.” At a research university, he says, the project would have involved faculty researchers and grad students. And “undergrads would be used, if they were used at all, for the coding: ‘Please read these hundred headlines and enter into an Excel spreadsheet what you think the tone is: positive, or negative, or neutral.’”

At Middlebury, Bleich says, his students were collaborators, helping to consider what the team wanted to learn from the project over the next few years and how to learn it.

Undergraduates as collaborators has a long history at Middlebury but is, by all accounts, more common today. From geologist Jeff Munroe trekking through Utah’s Uinta Mountains to study dust deposition to Bleich and his deep dive on media representation of Muslims, faculty members often arrive at Middlebury with an active research project and continue to pursue it—usually with the help of students.

Jim Ralph ’82, a history professor and dean of faculty development and research, says the College encourages faculty members to hire student research assistants both during the academic year and over the summer. They do so mostly via the Faculty Research Assistant Fund (FRAF) for general student support and via the Undergraduate Collaborative Research Fund (UCRF) for more collaborative student work—often anticipating that a poster, an article, or a book will result.

Lisa Gates, associate dean for fellowships and research, says the summer program in particular is growing quickly. In 2015, close to 140 students were involved and most were on campus. A summer research symposium has joined the popular spring student symposium as another showcase for student work.

Febe Armanios, an associate professor of history, has used both FRAF and UCRF grants and coauthored papers with students. She now has two books in progress, and for both she’s used student research help. One book is on the history of Christian satellite television in the Middle East. The other, on halal food, which she’s writing with her husband, UVM History Professor Boğaç Ergene, came from teaching the class, Food in the Middle East: History, Culture, and Identity. She worked on it while a fellow at Harvard during the fall of 2014.

Armanios points out that Middlebury’s faculty come primarily from larger research universities.  She, for instance, got her BA, MA, and PhD at Ohio State. Because graduate schools have become increasingly competitive, most of those who apply to become faculty at Middlebury have published extensively and have significant investments in their research interests and projects. “We’re now bringing in edgy, current, up-to-date scholars,” says Armanios, “who are the best and the brightest in their areas, and who are also really great teachers.”

Armanios says that when Middlebury students work with faculty and do their own research, they’re learning ways “to have a fuller and richer experience of what being at Middlebury is about. It’s not just being a passive recipient of knowledge in the classroom. They actually have a role in the production of new knowledge.”

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Zach Perzan ’14 agrees. A geology major, he worked with professors Jeff Munroe and Will Amidon on his thesis, which reported on his work in Vermont caves, the Weybridge Cave in particular. The most recent glacial advance, which ended approximately 14,500 years ago, did not disturb some deep caves. And sediments found there—some 30,000 to 100,000 years old—can provide clues about the climate in the northeast pre glaciers.

Perzan’s research work with Middlebury faculty has taken him out in the field and to conferences all over the country. Last spring, he presented at Posters on the Hill, an event on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., that celebrates undergraduate research. “I really haven’t heard about friends from other schools doing this level of side-by-side research,” he says. “You go to a conference and see students and professors doing a poster, and when a question gets asked, the professor responds. Here, you have to deal with anyone who wants to grill you on your work.”

The enterprise certainly seems to have value for teachers and students. “Students who are here for summer work, for example, say it was not just a paycheck or something that looks good on their resume,” says Jim Ralph, “but a really transformative educational experience.”

And that’s true regardless of whether students are heading to graduate school. “The value of research is in enhancing your critical thinking skills,” says Erik Bleich, the political scientist. “It’s really about thinking hard and systematically and meticulously about how the world works, and about how to make an argument about what’s really going on. I think that pays off no matter what their careers are.”

Bleich believes that Middlebury is better learning to appreciate the value research has to the institution as opposed to the value it has for individual faculty members and students. Research, he says, is not just something faculty members do to get tenure.

“We want to encourage our students to engage with the world,” Bleich says. “And that’s exactly what research is. It’s being engaged beyond the walls of Middlebury. So to the extent that we are engaged in research as a faculty, we are really modeling what we ask for in our students.”

Can a Place Like Aspen Go Green?

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In a posh resort town where private jets zip in and out, Matthew Hamilton ’95 has an answer for all the skeptics out there.

On a February morning at Aspen Highlands, Matthew Hamilton ’95 makes fast time up the boot-packed trail to the 12,392-foot summit of Highland Bowl. It hasn’t snowed in a while, but Hamilton—tall, gregarious, with a huge, toothy smile—is in good spirits. This is in part because his job requires him to go skiing and in part because the conversation is about green energy, a topic he could discuss long after the lifts have closed and après has begun.

For the past five years, Hamilton has been the sustainability director for Aspen Skiing Company (ASC), which runs the four ski resorts in and around Aspen, as well as properties throughout the Roaring Fork Valley. ASC is regarded as one of the most forward-looking companies in the business. Outside magazine and the Best Companies Group have made it a regular on their Best Places to Work list, and Condé Nast Traveler chose it as one of its top 10 destinations for eco-travel. The company, as well, has earned a slew of awards from local, state, and national organizations.

Hamilton’s job is both to preserve that reputation and to improve upon it. His work takes him to sustainable tourism conferences around the world, as well as to Washington, D.C., to promote renewable energy initiatives and climate policy. You might find him chatting about compost with a ski lodge staffer, leading technical meetings about the output of snowmaking equipment, reviewing audits for various LEED certifications, or negotiating with sponsors like Red Bull about ways to green events like the X Games, which Aspen hosted in 2015.

In addition, Hamilton spearheads ASC’s philanthropy work, directing the Environment Foundation. (Contributions come from ticket sales and employees who donate a few dollars from each paycheck to support local causes.) ASC also encourages its 3,400 employees to do two days of community volunteer work per year, which translates into a potential 15,500 hours.

Hang on, though. This is Aspen we’re talking about. It’s safe to say that billionaires flying private jets in and out of exclusive hamlets so they can, in an evening, blow $100,000 on imported wine and schuss down slopes chiseled from native forests don’t constitute a victory for Mother Nature. It’s all well and good that the on-mountain restaurants stock recycled napkins and offer locally sourced beef, or that Skico’s Limelight Hotel urges guests to go easy on the laundry. But considering
the colossal and urgent challenges climate change poses, one could conclude that sustainability at a posh ski resort is code for greenwashing.

Yet Hamilton’s work—and his response to this specific criticism—suggests a less cynical reality. “We are aware of our impact and constantly work to mitigate it,” he says.

Despite the elevation at Highland Bowl, Hamilton doesn’t sound at all winded. As we hike, he ticks through an exhaustive list of solar, water-conservation, and energy-efficiency initiatives that ASC has undertaken. Then he pauses, looking out west toward the summit of Snowmass and the jagged peaks of the Maroon Bells.

“If you define sustainability as being in business forever, then changing light bulbs, composting, etc., is good and fine. But if you don’t do the rest of it, you’re just scratching the surface. What’s the point?” By “the rest of it,” Hamilton means making the move from operational greening efforts to advocacy.

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Hamilton first began considering this distinction as an undergraduate studying political science and environmental studies, and then during graduate studies in public policy at Georgetown. At the end of the day, he says, winter recreation is just that. Even if Aspen were miraculously to become a net-negative consumer of power, water, gas, food, and so on, climate change based on current national and international rates of fossil fuel burning will continue apace, which threatens the livelihoods and lives of tens—perhaps hundreds—of millions of people. All of which makes the greening of ski area operations sound somewhere between cute and irrelevant.

Yet the Aspen name is not irrelevant. “Meaningful action happens in the halls of our statehouses, board rooms of electrical utilities, and the halls of Congress,” says Hamilton. ASC employees and guests might measure the company’s sincerity by its offering of recycled napkins. “But we can have our biggest impact through leveraging our brand and the influence of our guests, pushing for substantive action on climate and energy policy.” So last year, swapping out his telemark gear for a gray suit and purple tie, Hamilton spent a day lobbying on Capitol Hill. ASC has joined a coalition of businesses that includes Nike, Starbucks, Patagonia, and Unilever in advocating for energy and climate legislation.

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AspenforWeb1Closer to home, Hamilton’s team does have plenty to boast about. ASC has pledged to reduce its CO2 emissions to 25 percent of its 2000 levels by 2020. The 147kW solar-electric system ASC built on a nearby ranch is the largest such system in the ski industry, and ASC has lent support to several wind and solar developments throughout the region.

The flagship project isn’t located near the ski slopes or fancy stores at Aspen Mountain’s base. It’s beside a coal mine in the tiny town of Somerset, 70 miles southwest of Aspen along the Gunnison River. In a partnership with local mining and energy companies, ASC has spent $5.5 million on the country’s largest facility for converting methane from coal mines into usable electricity.

Methane gas is pumped out of mines to protect miners. And almost all mining operations release that gas into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. In fact, it’s 25 times more potent. The idea of capturing it and putting it to better use is not new, but only a few such plants exist in the U.S. The plant in Somerset produces 24 million kilowatt hours—roughly what ASC uses annually. The other benefit, of course, is doing away with methane that would otherwise drift up into the atmosphere. For Hamilton, this project exemplifies what it means to move beyond amorphous notions of sustainability to deliver actual economic and environmental results.

Hamilton, however, rejects the idea that gestures—on-mountain placards about climate change, fuel efficient snow-grooming machines, or even those napkins—are only superficial gestures meant to burnish a company’s image or assuage a resource-devouring clientele’s guilt. “Every initiative taken by a business is an important step towards reducing that company’s impact.” True, two kilowatts of solar on a building that requires 412,000 kilowatts is a drop in the bucket. “But when coupled with educational information and touted publicly, even those two kilowatts can be a powerful influencer of behavior and conversation that in turn motivates larger actions in an employee’s or guest’s life.”

Aspen’s influential clientele can also magnify the impact of these gestures.

Brands, along with the eco-conscientiousness people inevitably encounter during their stay, influence guests whether they’re conscious of it or not. “If they have a chance to look up from their smartphones,” says Hamilton, “they will bump into a message—about climate change, about mining rights, about lighting, about water conservation.” Hopefully these messages affect people—even long after their ski vacation has ended.

Back at Highland Bowl’s summit, Hamilton offers to take photos for a few fellow skiers, then tightens his boots for a run down more than 1,000 vertical feet of soft, wind-blown snow. Before we set in, he shares an anecdote about a recent exchange with a reporter from London who was writing about carbon footprints and ski vacations. He had emailed Hamilton some straightforward questions about eco-friendly operations, and Hamilton, as always, was happy to talk about the good work ASC is doing regarding sustainability.

But the journalist’s final question was trickier: because some 75 percent of the carbon emissions from winter sports can be attributed to travel, wouldn’t it be better for the planet if skiers and snowboarders from Europe didn’t fly to Colorado and instead vacationed closer to home?

Hamilton’s answer: Yes, but.

“My initial response was, ‘Yeah, he’s right.’ People should minimize their carbon footprint vacation closer to home.” That isn’t the whole picture, though. “If a skier really cares about the climate issue, then he has to couple good decisions like skiing locally with broader personal activism on the politics of climate change.” That activism, Hamilton believes, has to include demanding of the resorts we patron both environmentally progressive practices and efforts to move the public-policy needle. “At the end of the day, I think we differentiate ourselves with activism, lobbying, and action on the ground.”

And then he took off down the hill.