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For some students who study abroad, the greatest culture shock they encounter is when they return home.

When Sayre Weir ’15 left the U.S. to study abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, last fall she says that she was prepped and packed for the anticipated transition to a foreign culture. Her new vocabulary included terms like “culture shock,” and her suitcase contained an adjustment guide, courtesy of the Middlebury Study Abroad Office, which fit snugly alongside her Patagonia jacket and spring sandals. Yet while Sayre’s transition to this foreign city was jarring and difficult, she expected it. What surprised her was how difficult it was to return to Middlebury.

When asked about her re-entry experience, she took a deep breath and said, “I was overwhelmed. Walking into Proctor dining hall was probably the most over-stimulating experience during my the past three years here.”

Sayre’s remark reflects the surface of a deep-rooted struggle for many Middlebury students: reverse culture shock, an equally if not more powerful experience than foreign culture shock—the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.

Every year, roughly half of the Middlebury junior class studies abroad, traveling to more than 40 countries and enrolling at more than 90 different programs and universities. Just over half of these students study at Middlebury Schools Abroad—in 37 cities in 17 countries, where Middlebury students will live and learn among native speakers. Prior to leaving, students are debriefed on their program’s requirements and realities at country-specific pre-departure sessions featuring both study abroad advisors and previous students. Most programs students attend, including both Middlebury Schools Abroad and externally-sponsored programs, also include on-site orientation in the destination country. Often one of the most emphasized concepts in these orientations is “culture shock.” Repeated forewarnings of the overwhelming adjustment to foreign cultures, social codes, food, climate, and politics are logical and internalized. However, the reality of students’ post-abroad re-entry contains its own set of hurdles.

Jeremy Kallan ’14, who studied in Alexandria, Egypt, agrees with Sayre in articulating his own frustrations in returning to Middlebury. “Being abroad is an emotional roller coaster,” he said. But coming back can be just as hard. When you return, “everything’s the same and normal and it seems boring. And I kind of felt depressed, purposeless, like home and Middlebury are not everything I thought they were [when I was away].”

Students and institutions alike are working to devise helpful solutions to this taxing, yet inevitable experience. Like other colleges and universities, Middlebury has employed a number of re-entry events—writing workshops, speakers, lunchtime discussion series—throughout the year. And at the start of the fall semester, International Programs holds a “welcome back” reception for students who have studied abroad the previous academic year.

“The challenge,” says Stacey Thebodo, the assistant director of International Programs, “is at events other than the fall welcome back reception, we have seen very poor attendance.” She said that only a small fraction of the 350 students who go abroad each year have attended the organized events, which has left her office puzzling over how to support students returning to Middlebury.

“Though we know that the students who come to these events need the support, we also believe there are others out there who could use advice. Every year I have a few students come into my office individually saying that they are struggling with the transition. Research shows that reverse culture shock can be much more difficult than the culture shock experienced abroad, because after studying abroad you are a changed person – you probably have a new world view – and it can be difficult to figure out how to fit into your old environment. You start to question your cultural identity and what “home” is. At the same time, everyone is asking you, “So how was X country?” and they really only want a quick response (“It was great!”). When students return to Middlebury, they also tend to experience challenges with academic adjustment. Students get used to a lot of independence abroad, and in other countries there is much less continuous assessment throughout the semester, so readjustment back to the Middlebury/US system and the workload can be overwhelming. We encourage students to try to find ways to incorporate their study abroad into their academics back at Middlebury—for example, into their senior theses, or participating in the research symposium, or continuing to take language and/or area studies courses.”

 Among the main frustrations that students report are extremes of experience (“I go from living in Botswana in the spring to interning at a New York City publishing house in the summer to returning to Middlebury in the fall, where I fall into all of the same routines that existed before I left”) and lack of understanding among peers how difficult studying abroad can be.

“I struggle when anyone asks me what it was like abroad,” says Milou Lammers ’15. “For many people, I find myself limiting my response to ‘I loved Paris.’” For those she knows better, though, she allows that while she loved the city, she found the program to be arduous, and not the glamorous American in Paris story that people who haven’t been abroad seem to expect. “I find it difficult to be one of the few people I know who didn’t necessarily enjoy their study abroad experience. I have to make the distinction that I loved France and my language skills really improved,” but loving the program, she says? No.

Thebodo says, “When talking about study abroad, students often do not talk about it being difficult, and it is difficult. It is supposed to be challenging! If you are not experiencing some discomfort, then you are probably having a very surface level experience and are not immersing yourself and challenging yourself to meet people and engage with the culture. This is also true when you come back home – adjustment is a process and is not easy, and it takes time. This is where a lot of growth and learning comes from; often it takes awhile after being back home to realize how much you learned abroad.”

And then there is the race to catch up with those who have been here all along, the unrealistic expectation of picking up right where one had left off several months prior.

So, what is the solution? More structured programs upon returning to campus? Mandatory on-site reverse orientation? Perhaps the first step is just talking more about how difficult returning from abroad can be. As Thebodo says, her office is there to listen and to help. And it appears that there are more than enough people experienced with this issue to start a dialogue. The learning curve may be steep, but the opportunity is there to be seized.

 Leah Fessler ’15 studied in Buenos Aires last fall. She is a contributing editor to Middlebury Magazine.

“Ok, Let’s Try This Again…”

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

SC-2The second story in a three-part series chronicling student-led Middlebury Alternative Trips (MAlt) before the start of spring semester. In this Dispatch, twelve students spend a week at a struggling elementary and middle school in rural South Carolina.


Pencils and pens hit the floor.

A teacher yelled at her students.

A classroom door slammed shut.

Before the meltdown began at this small school in rural South Carolina, a sixth grader had raised her hand and asked a question.

“Miss,” she said to her teacher, “I don’t feel like I am learning anything by you just clicking through these slides. I am not understanding or learning anything from it.”

The science teacher responded by throwing down a handful of pencils and pens.

“If you want to learn science, teach it to yourself!” she yelled and stormed out of the classroom.

That was the welcome that twelve Middlebury  students received on their first day on site at the school. The shocked and fearful expressions that spread across the faces of the Middlebury students in no way compared to the reactions of the sixth graders, most of whom shrugged their shoulders, as if saying,

“This is normal…nothing really changes with her.”

What scared us was that it was abundantly clear that this was not the first time the children had been yelled at or walked out on. We had heard that teacher retention was a challenge at the school, something the administration struggled with. And the students? They didn’t have a voice.

This school has a history of threatened closure; it has long been seen as one of the worst elementary and middle schools in this rural county in northeastern South Carolina, an area best-known for tobacco farming. With only about 46 students being taught in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, school administrators have tried valiantly to meet the needs of their students, most of whom come from lower socio-economic backgrounds. After administrative changes and the addition of Teach for America instructors during the past few years, there has been a subtle shifts for the better in the school’s academic standing. A big issue that remains, though, is keeping those teachers who are having a positive influence—and working around those who aren’t.

When that science teacher walked out on our first day at the school, Stuart Green ’16 went to the front of the classroom and began to draw on a white board, sketching  diagrams. He asked students to come to the board to point out the answers to his questions; some  were encouraged to recreate the diagrams that he had drawn and erased.  Slowly, the energy level rose. Hands were raised. Answers were shouted out. Collectively, the class was signalling what that one brave young woman had voiced earlier: they wanted to learn.

On our final day in South Carolina, the students held a talent show, an impressive display of wit and candor and enthusiasm. At the end of the show, our MAlt was called to the stage. The sixth, seventh, and eighth graders had prepared something for us, something we did not expect. Every Middlebury Mentor was presented with a white mailbox, each containing  individual notes from every one of the students we had interacted with during the week. The messages varied though shared a common theme of appreciation:

“Thank you for coming.”

“You helped me a lot through the week.”

“I calmed down because of you.”

“Thank you for making everyone laugh and for having a fun time with us.”

At that moment, it was hard to tell if we had made a greater impression on them, or them on us.

In Another County: One Week in America’s Natural Gas Mecca

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

On January 31, eleven Middlebury students—outfitted with cameras and field recorders—piled into a 15-passenger van and motored seven hours south to Bradford County, Pennsylvania, home to one of the most densely hydraulically fractured regions in the United States. Their week-long Middlebury Alternative Break (MAlt) Trip in Eastern Pennsylvania was structured as an opportunity to explore energy issues. It was a leap into the unfamiliar, an attempt to humanize the social, political, and environmental dimensions of natural gas extraction.

Two of the participants chronicled their experience.

The first thing we did when we rolled into Bradford County was scan the scenery for signs of hydraulic fracturing: the “frack” pads, the clear cuts of forest, the cesspools, the bulky rigs and power stations. Instead, we saw a community enduring what seemed to be the consequences of the natural gas industry’s “boom-bust” economy. We observed only vestiges of the gas companies: the occasional water truck, a frack pad, or pickup stained packed with pipeline, stained ink black. Landmen had already collected signatures from landowners’ to drill. Wells had been drilled, fracked, and re-fracked. For the lucky few, royalty checks, big or small, were streaming in. The traffic that accompanied the initial fracking boom had thinned. Local shops, hotels, and restaurants, once teeming with contractors, landscapers, and engineers, were emptied.


One of the authors, Zane Anthony, standing at an abandoned fracking site in Pennsylvania

We wondered where everyone had gone. (To the next fracturing sites outside the Marcellus Shale border, we would learn—to North Dakota or Oklahoma where communities were being zoned and primed for drilling, fracking, and extraction.)

It seemed that everyone we encountered had a story. One resident we met was Carol French, a lifelong dairy farmer and Bradford County resident, who along with fellow dairy farmer Carolyn Knapp, founded Pennsylvania Landowner Group for Awareness and Solutions (PLGAS) in 2008. PLGAS provides a forum for community resistance to unjust business practices by the gas industries in the region.

Carol told us that she had never considered herself an activist type. Then, she leased her land to Chesapeake Oil Corporation. Drilling began on her property, and her water turned to gelatin. She and her livestock developed rashes all over their bodies. Her adult daughter became sick multiple times and ultimately moved out of town. Carol sells her milk to many corporations, but she no longer drinks it herself. She said her community was now fraught with environmental health risks as a result of the industry’s unregulated, unrestrained efforts to extract.

Later in the week, we visited the office of the Bradford County Planning Commission. They told us the fracking industry has funneled wealth into the area and enabled farmers to sustain the economic viability of their livelihoods. We asked them about Carol’s and Carolyn’s claims. They said water contamination as a result of hydrofracking was not a prevalent issue, insisting the industry is safe. PLGAS and the Planning Commission’s stances on natural gas issues were fundamentally divided. We were in a dual reality.

We also encountered middle ground. We met with a man at the county’s conservation agency who considered fracking one of the most effective farmland conservation efforts he had ever witnessed. In the county, many of the farmers are elderly, and a farmer’s retirement is his land. We were told that royalties from the industry have allowed many farmers to remain on their land into retirement. Without this option, the conservation agency’s representative told us, developers would have purchased the land, subdivided it, and built “McMansions.”He also noted that the industry has encouraged people to break their conservation easements with the agency to allow for more fracking and paid for the resulting fines. It is not yet understood how fracking has impacted the land and its resources, he said.

We also interviewed a couple who leased their 200 acres at the height of the boom and today earn substantial income from royalties. With this money, they installed a geothermal heating system on their property. Other families, they noted, leased early on for a fraction of the price of those who waited long enough for higher royalties, which has resulted in a substantial wealth gap previously unseen in the area.

On the last night of our trip, we worried that once we returned to  Middlebury our memories of this place would fade, that we would forget that our lives are so deeply rooted in energy consumption, consumption that affects communities like this one in complex and permanent ways. But this concern didn’t last long. We had traveled to a seemingly foreign  jurisdiction to see first-hand the environmental and societal impact of natural gas extraction; when we left, we were determined that our experience wouldn’t be left behind.

Zane Anthony ’16.5 is a biology major from Annapolis, Maryland. Sophie Vaughan ’17 is an environmental studies major from Oakland, California.

This is the first Dispatch in a three-part series chronically student-led Middlebury Alternative Break Trips.

Liebowitz Presidency to End in 2015; Board to Restructure

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Middlebury College President Ron Leibovitz at Mead ChapelMiddlebury President Ronald D. Liebowitz’s term as president will end June 30, 2015, when his current contract concludes.

Middlebury’s 16th president, who has served in the office since 2004, shared his news with the College community in an e-mail at the conclusion of the December Board of Trustees meeting in New York City.

“It has been an honor of the highest order to serve as the 16th president of this remarkable institution,” Liebowitz wrote. “With its dedicated and committed staff, superb faculty, and outstanding students, Middlebury has never been stronger or better positioned for the future.”

Liebowitz noted that the institution “will continue to pursue the ambitious agenda we have set for ourselves” through the presidential transition and beyond. He stated that announcing his own transition plan now would provide the Board of Trustees with “the time necessary to select a search committee, to conduct a thoughtful search to identify the finest candidates, and, ultimately, to select Middlebury’s next leader.”

In addition to announcing his decision, Liebowitz informed the community of another important initiative that will affect the way the College is governed—a bold revision of Middlebury’s trustee structure that will go into effect July 1, 2014. While the size of the 35-member board will remain the same, how it is organized and how it approaches its responsibilities will change. In its coverage of the announcement, online publication Inside Higher Ed noted that while “some things unique to Middlebury prompted the change . . . other changes could fix an American higher ed board structure that many administrators believe is broken and unable to guide institutions ably in the 21st century.”

Among the notable changes is a reduction of 15 standing committees to six, with each carrying a range of substantive responsibilities. (The six consist of the Prudential Committee, which acts as an executive committee of the board; Trusteeship and Governance; Strategy; Resources; Risk Management; and New Programs.) In addition, the new governance structure establishes three boards of overseers—one for the undergraduate college, one for the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and one for the “Schools,” which includes the Language Schools, Bread Loaf School of English, C.V. Starr-Middlebury Schools Abroad, School of the Environment, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. These boards will be charged with focusing on the academic and student affairs operations of their respective institutions; membership will include current trustees, “partner” overseers (individuals who typically have some connection to Middlebury), and “constituent” overseers (one faculty, one staff member, and one student).

The governance changes come a year after Liebowitz and board chair Marna Whittington had initiated a review of the board’s structure and appointed a Governance Working Group to make recommendations on how the board should best be organized. These recommendations were subsequently turned into a set of proposed bylaw revisions that were unanimously approved by the full Board of Trustees in December.

For more on the changes in governance and what it means for Middlebury, please see Ron Liebowitz’s Q&A, “Board, Restructured.”


While there will be more opportunities—in this magazine and elsewhere—during the next 18 months to discuss the impact Ron Liebowitz has had on Middlebury, it’s worth noting several significant achievements at this time.

During his presidency, Middlebury acquired the Monterey Institute of International Studies; opened 23 new Schools Abroad sites; added 120 endowed student scholarships for financial aid and 15 endowed faculty positions; established the School of Hebrew—Middlebury’s 10th intensive summer language school—and the summer School of the Environment; sent two successful teams to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon competition; inaugurated the Franklin Environmental Center for the study of the environment and sustainability; created the Center for Social Entrepreneurship; and initiated an array of programs to help students acquire leadership and communication skills and to cultivate creativity and innovation.

For context, many of these accomplishments took place against the backdrop of a deep economic crisis that began in 2007. Liebowitz guided Middlebury through that recession while maintaining a balanced budget, sustaining the institution’s commitment to need-blind admissions, and without resorting to layoffs.

He will be missed. But not for another year and a half. As he will be the first to tell you, there is still a lot of work left to be done.

Old Chapel: Board, Restructured

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

'M' at workAt its December 2013 meeting, the Middlebury Board of Trustees unanimously approved revisions to its governance structure, which will go into effect July 1, 2014. We spoke to President Liebowitz about what it all means.

What led the Board of Trustees to decide to revise its governance structure?
There were many factors, but I think they fell into two categories: internal and external. Externally, the world has changed dramatically since Middlebury, and its board in particular, has had a chance to step back and review the way in which it governs itself. The business of higher education has become infinitely more complex. Colleges and universities today face an array of challenges, from important questions of cost and competitiveness to applications of technology and issues relating to the management of large endowments, just to name a few. These require strong governance structures.

Looking at Middlebury internally, we haven’t made many substantive changes to how we are organized and how we run things in the past 50 years. But in that time this traditional, small, residential liberal arts college has been transformed into something quite different. In the 1960s, we had 1,200 students; now we have 2,500. We had about 80 or 90 faculty; now we have almost 300.

Geographically, we were overwhelmingly a local, Vermont institution. The Bread Loaf campus was the farthest extension of the College, save for a small number of programs for our Language School graduate students in France, Spain, and Italy. Now we have operations in almost 40 sites around the world. One of those is a graduate school in Monterey, California, with almost 700 students.

These internal changes required us to step back and ask some critical questions: Is our board organized in the best way possible to know what it needs to know about this dynamic institution? And is it properly positioned to guide Middlebury through what many have said are likely to be turbulent times going forward? Our trustees carry the ultimate responsibility for the long-term well-being of the institution. Understanding this, it made sense to ask the fundamental question of whether our current board governance structure was helping the trustees be good fiduciaries of the institution.

We’re fortunate that we are undertaking these adjustments from a position of strength. The College has never been stronger, and it has a great future. But we can’t sit back and not engage in the broader issues affecting higher education. We thought now would be a good time to make this governance change.

Tell us about the process, how long it took …
The process began shortly after the College’s 2011 ten-year reaccreditation review. That was an important driver because the review highlighted just how complex Middlebury had become. And it noted that our governance structures in some cases hadn’t kept pace.

In the summer of 2012, I wrote a lengthy letter to the faculty, about the dual challenges of cost and relevance in higher education. I think that also played a role in the decision to move forward. Trustees began asking the question that so many outside the academy are asking: Why is higher education so expensive, and are students and families and supporters of our institutions getting all that they should for that type of investment? Are there ways to control those costs? The other key issue from that letter had to do with relevance.
Is a BA degree the same today as it was 200 years ago, 100 years ago, 50 years ago? Or do we need to start thinking differently about higher education, especially within the context of the changing, more competitive global environment? Are our graduates getting an appropriate mix of theoretical and hands-on applications given the realities of their post-college lives?

The combination of the reaccreditation review and the letter to faculty led to a series of discussions, influenced by the impact of the 2007–10 recession. The vulnerability of even the most wealthy private educational institutions cannot be dismissed and certainly affected how we assess risk and how we think about governance. It was largely these issues that led Marna Whittington, our board chair, and me to engage the trustees on a process that would allow them to better understand—and engage more meaningfully—the emerging trends in higher education and the demands placed on Middlebury.

In these conversations, we thought about governance in many ways. We thought about faculty governance. We thought about trustee governance. We thought about broader institutional governance. We decided that it made sense to start with the Board of Trustees due to the role it plays as the fiduciary body of the institution. We engaged an educational consultant, well known in higher education and familiar with Middlebury, and together we created a process that would identify what we wanted to achieve and how we would go about achieving it. This led to the appointment in the fall of 2012 of a governance working group, which included veteran trustees, two faculty members, and two staff members. Marna and I laid out a charge for the group, which was to think broadly and long-term—and not to be afraid of bold change.

Two notable changes in the governance structure were paring the 15 standing committees down to six, while making them broader in scope, and creating three boards of overseers—one for the undergraduate college, one for the Monterey Institute, and one for the “Schools.” What will this mean for the individual trustees?
For many years, trustees have sat on anywhere from three to six committees, which forced us to divide up the available time into short blocks—about an hour and 15 minutes for each committee. That made it very hard to go deeply into a subject. That was a major deficiency of the old system.

The working group examined the current committees and their respective charges and reconfigured them into a smaller number of committees based on the overlap of their respective purviews. This will allow trustees to take deeper dives, to think about issues as they relate to one another rather than in isolation from one another, and to do so over a longer period of time, a three-hour block of time. The boards of overseers will work largely as program committees that relate to each of the major areas of the institution: the undergraduate college, the (graduate) Monterey Institute, and then all of the “Schools”—the Language Schools, Bread Loaf School of English, the Schools Abroad, the School of the Environment, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. And, I suspect, future endeavors we may pursue.

Each trustee will sit on one standing committee, which will meet for three hours in the morning, and one board of overseers, which will meet in the afternoon, also for three hours. What will it mean for these trustees? We expect the experience will be one of greater focus. Their committee work will probe more deeply into the issues and questions facing the institution. We know from our trustee surveys that this is what they want. They want to be more of a “doing board” rather than a “listening board.” They believe that by developing more expertise and a deeper understanding of the issues, they will be better fiduciaries for the institution.

What is the charge given to the overseers?
They will focus on curriculum and academic programs, the quality of the student experience, fundraising, and those unique characteristics and qualities that distinguish each of our programs. The College board of overseers will do this for the undergraduate College, which is the core of our identity as an institution. The Institute board will focus exclusively on those same issues as they pertain to Monterey. And so on.

The overseer boards will vary in size, but trustees will comprise a majority of each. The College board will have 18 sitting trustees, the Monterey Institute board will have 9, and the Schools board will have 8. And then every one, two, or three years, trustees will rotate from one board to another so that over a five-year term or even a 15-year or lifetime term, each trustee will become much better acquainted with each of our programs. In addition, each board will have “partner” overseers and “constituent” overseers. Partner overseers will be individuals who have particular expertise or who are invested in the institution in some meaningful way. Constituent overseers will be students, faculty, and staff who will bring their own unique perspective to the membership. Each board will have one student, one faculty, and one staff member as constituent members. The inclusion of non-trustees brings diversity of experience and expertise to these boards, which I think is crucial.

Overseers will make recommendations that will then flow into the appropriate committee on the standing side. If one has a proposal for staffing or for a new program, that would go from the overseer committee to a standing committee or to the full board. All board-level decisions will ultimately be made by the full board, after recommendations come from the board of overseers or from a standing committee.

The creation of the boards of overseers is really quite significant for the institution. Historically, trustees–most of whom attended Middlebury as undergraduates–have tended to focus their attention overwhelmingly on the undergraduate experience. The complexity of Middlebury today demands we broaden that focus. Fortunately, our trustees are eager to learn more about the Monterey Institute, the Language Schools, Bread Loaf, etc. They are eager to engage issues pertaining to these areas of Middlebury. That’s another great benefit of the new structure.

Road Taken: On Teaching

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

RoadTakenMy husband and I never dreamt we’d teach at Middlebury.

It doesn’t seem so long ago that we met as students. Rob Ackerman ’80 was in Spain on a junior-year abroad, and I was getting my master’s in Spanish. We met in a graduate theater class in Madrid.
Our homework was to see a play. Rob and I saw the play—and began seeing each other. This was in 1978. By 1990, we were married and had two daughters. In 2008, our second, Emme, applied early decision to Middlebury. One tense December morning, she leaned into her laptop and pressed in a code. She got in!

Two years later, Rob and I drove from Manhattan to Middlebury to hear her sing a cappella and to ski at the Snow Bowl. (Rob’s and my pre-nup agreement had been that I’d learn to ski. Why? Because if I skied, I might enjoy winter rather than hunkering down like a bear in a cave waiting for it to be over.)

January 2011, however, was brutal. After three freezing runs, I decided to warm up in the lodge. Rob kept skiing and met an alum, Sam Silver ’86, on a chairlift. Sam was teaching a J-term class and said it was incredibly hard, incredibly fun, and that his course on the death penalty ended with a mock trial at the Addison County Courthouse. When Sam learned that Rob and I are writers, he said we should think about teaching too.

Emme, Class of 2013.5, approved the idea, bless her. So we applied, sending in proposals and résumés. Rob would teach Writing American Theater; I would teach Writing First Person. When we heard back in June, it was the old-fashioned way: thick snail-mail envelopes. We got in!

Now we had to consider two important matters: (1) Who would take care of our cat? (2) How would we teach writing? Finding a cat-sitter proved easy, but preparing our syllabi took weeks. It was not easy to figure out how to squeeze everything we knew into just 16 seminars.
In November 2012, as I was sipping my coffee, I opened an e-mail: “I was really hoping to get into your J-term class,” it read.

“Unfortunately, somehow I was too late, even though I registered right at 7 am.”

Huh? I had a waitlist? I e-mailed Middlebury. Yes, 12 registered students, 14 hopefuls. Whoa. This was official.

Emme urged me to throw the classroom doors wide open. But I liked the idea of just a dozen Midd Kids discussing style and story, verbs and voice. We would read excerpts of memoirs, essays, and fiction, writing up a storm, and critiquing our pages together.

When I told Helen, who cleans our apartment each week, that Rob and I would be away in January, she asked,  “How will you teach writing?” I said that I’d give a prompt, the students would run with it, and we’d share the work aloud in a supportive atmosphere.

“A prompt?”

“If I say, for instance, ‘your grandmother’s hands,’ the kids might look perplexed, but then they’d start writing a mile a minute—for 10 minutes.”

Helen nodded. “My grandmother, in Trinidad, had one hand that was bigger and stronger than the other. She never went to school, but she delivered all the babies in our village. All of them! I was one of nine siblings. Once, I was playing with my sister, and my grandmother and mother were in the next room. Suddenly we heard a cry, and we knew we had another baby…”

“Wow,” I said. “You get an A.”

Rob and I had a great time teaching writing last January. Full disclosure: We did some skiing too.

Carol Weston, MA Spanish ’79 is the author of 13 books including Ava and Pip (Jabberwocky), Girltalk (HarperCollins), and The Diary of Melanie Martin (Random House). She has been the advice columnist at Girls’ Life since 1994.

Pursuits: Vision Quest

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

CurryDan Curry ’68 can realize anything—and by realize, I mean make, build, render into being. He can turn shampoo bottles into spaceships. He can cajole friends into modeling for a recreation of the Cherry Valley Massacre of November 11, 1778 (a bicentennial commission for a museum in Massachusetts). He can paint whole universes on a single canvas if the job calls for it—or a Christmas tableau, with chimney smoke and blinking lights, for a holiday episode of Laverne and Shirley.

When Curry—a veteran visual effects supervisor/producer with seven Emmys (out of 15 nominations) on his shelf and an arm belonging to Star Trek’s Borg Queen in his workshop at his home in Studio City, California—enrolled at Middlebury nearly half a century ago, he had “no idea” what he was going to do professionally. “There was a movie theater on our corner growing up, and I began drawing storyboards for imaginary movies before I knew what storyboards were,” says the Bellerose, New York, native. “When I played with toy soldiers, I wasn’t playing war—I was playing making movies about war.” When he saw The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad in 1958, “there was a little display in the lobby about how Ray Harryhausen did the effects, and I said, ‘I think I can do that.’”

Coming to Middlebury on scholarship, from a high school more accustomed to dealing with parole officers than admissions officers, “I didn’t realize how incredibly good it was,” Curry says. Chandler Potter, who taught production design for theater, was an important influence; and a Midd production of A Streetcar Named Desire “opened my eyes for what live theater can be—the settings were very abstract, but they were so right on for the tone of Tennessee Williams’s play.”

After Curry graduated with a fine arts major and a theater minor in 1968, he joined the Peace Corps. He built little farms and bridges on the banks of the Mekong, “which actually had a positive impact on people’s lives,” and designed a nearby marketplace. He experienced Thai village culture just as it had existed, unchanged for centuries, “before The Flintstones was dubbed into Thai,” he says.
Fast-forward a decade or so to graduate school at Humboldt State University, where Curry pursued an MFA in film and theater. A one-man show of his paintings caught the eye of visiting lecturer Marcia Lucas (an Oscar winner for editing then-husband George’s Star Wars). She referred Curry to Universal Studios, which was looking for artists who could do photo-realistic work in oils—“because in those days there were no computers”—so he moved to Los Angeles, joined the Illustrators and Matte Artists Union, and went to work on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Battlestar Galactica.

Jobs in visual effects and main title design occupied much of the 1980s, until Curry got a call from Paramount asking him to supervise visual effects for Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1989. “Who wouldn’t?” he says. Curry worked on the Star Trek franchise for the next 18 years (through Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise), eventually directing second-unit shoots and many fight sequences as well.

Then he spent a single year on Moonlight for CBS, four years on Chuck for NBC, and wrote a white paper for NASA as a member of its vision team. His latest project is a new series starring Gillian Anderson and Dermot Mulroney called Crisis, which is expected to premiere on NBC sometime after the Winter Olympics.

“Whether it’s designing a dam, or creating an oil painting, or figuring out shots for a movie, I look at it all as an extension of the same thing,” Curry says. “It’s a reaction to the phenomenon of life. And sometimes there’s greater truth in fiction than there is in reality. We are all at the center of our own imaginary universe.”

Dick Anderson is a writer in Los Angeles. He learned all about special effects through the pages of  Starlog magazine before there was an Internet.